We were so thrilled to attend Palm Springs International Film Festival, but sadly it was cancelled due to the Omicron Covid strain. Thus, as jurors, we had to resort to have our deliberations on line and watch all the movies (36 of them!) the same way. The films are submissions from different countries, aspiring to the Best International Picture Academy Award. Not all of them have been shortlisted for the Oscar.
We awarded the Mexican film Prayers for the Stolen by Salvadoran-Mexican director Tatiana Huezo. The story takes us to the northwestern region of Mexico, to the state of Jalisco. There is a place in the mountains called Los Altos. Here, drug traffickers or “narcos” as Mexicans call them, run the place.
The main way of living in this community is to grow opium poppy flowers, and then “milk” them in order to obtain a goopy substance from which heroin is made. Few people work outside of this business. One of them is Rita (Mayra Batalla), whose husband is an immigrant living in the United States. Supposedly he should be sending money to his family, but he hasn’t. Rita has to fend for herself.
But what worries Rita the most, is her daughter, Ana (Ana Cristina Ordoñez). News travel about girls being taken by the narcos as they grow older. Thus, Rita cuts off Ana’s hair, and dresses her up as a boy, in order to prevent her from being stolen. A difficult childhood ensues.
Movies about drug trafficking disruption are not new, but what makes this film different is its sober and merciless portrait of systematic violence. Girls are having a tough time being girls; they have hiding places, they know what to do when “bad men” arrive. Teachers at the multilevel classroom that serves as town school, quit constantly from their posts: they are afraid.
What this movie does is to depict this angst as an everyday situation and what people do to survive. The performances by an all non-professional cast ring true. The direction is fantastic.
But best thing is, Prayers for the Stolen does not delve in melodrama. Thus, its power.
Another movie that won big at the festival was A Hero by Asghar Farhadi. As our jury statement in awarding the film for Best Screenplay reads: “A brilliant and cleverly conceived screenplay, which draws us into the story with ambivalent feelings of both contempt and compassion. A Hero is set in Iran and spoken in Persian, but the situation it portrays and the characters involved, are universal.” Amir Jadidi’s performance is outstanding, absolute worthy of the Best Actor Prize.
Finally, despite having incredible performances from Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person in the World) and Noomi Rapace (Lamb), we agreed to give the Best Actress Award to Agathe Roussell for her powerful physical role in Titane.
Unfortunately, Covid continues to disrupt film festivals all over the world, but thankfully we live in an era where we are able to watch the films in competition and confer online. It is far from ideal, but sooner than later we will be able to enjoy festivals they way they are meant to be: in a movie theater and having a great discussion (preferably with a glass of wine) afterwards. Most importantly: cinema is alive and kicking.
© FIPRESCI 2022