Innocent Voices (Mexico/United States/Puerto Rico, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Innocent Voices tells a very personal story wrapped within a larger political context. Based on the memoirs of co-writer Oscar Orlando Torres, the film hearkens back to the 1980s and the brutal civil war that devastated El Salvador. Much like in many Central and South American battles, the struggle pitted an authoritarian regime against communist guerillas. The victims, as usual, were the unaligned citizens caught in between. Atrocities were documented on both sides, and the war lasted for a dozen years, ending in 1992 when both sides signed a U.N.-sponsored peace treaty.

For Innocent Voices, however, politics represents background. This is the story of one child's harrowing ordeal surviving a war. That it happens to be El Salvador is a quirk of history. It could just as easily be one of any number of similar struggles that have occurred in dozens of countries across the world. Civil wars by their nature are often brutal and bloody with thousands of innocent victims. What happened in El Salvador from 1980 until 1992 was no different. A film like Innocent Voices puts faces to what might otherwise be statistics.

Chava (Carlos Padilla) lives in an impoverished El Salvadoran village with his mother, Kella (Leonor Verela), his sister, and his younger brother. Their father abandoned them at the outset of the war, heading north to the United States. The tension of battle is all around. By day, convoys of army troops roam the countryside, "recruiting" boys and searching for guerillas. At night, firefights break out. Anyone out after curfew or too close to a window could become a victim. For Chava, this is an especially dangerous time. His 12th birthday is approaching, and the army begins drafting boys when they are 12. As the war intensifies, normalcy retreats. School is canceled, limiting Chava's opportunities to see his "girlfriend," Cristina Maria (Xuna Primus). His uncle, Beto (José Maria Yzapik), is a member of the resistance and can only visit in secret. And the local priest (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is beaten for aiding the guerillas. Then, when the army comes on one of its regular recruiting raids, Chava and boys like him must hide on rooftops to avoid the sweep.

One charge leveled against Innocent Voices is that it carries a "leftist bias" - that is, there is a tendency to demonize the army. This is accurate, but it's important to remember that the story represents Chava's point-of-view, and the boy's sympathies lie with the guerillas. Not only because his uncle is in their ranks but because he personally has been victimized by actions of the government troops. Individual memoirs from any conflict rarely give a "balanced" view. That is not their goal, and it's no different here.

Mexican-born director Luis Mandoki, whose mainstream American successes include When a Man Loves a Woman and Message in a Bottle, has produced a film from the heart, without concern about its commercial prospects (they can generously be called "limited"). He accurately reproduces aspects of this kind of war: the chaos and terror of the nights, the uncertainty of living in a society where anarchy rules, and the pain of seeing friends and family suddenly and brutally ripped away. From the first frame, we are pulled into Chava's world, and it's a harrowing place to visit.

Newcomer Carlos Padilla gives a mature, unaffected performance. We never for a moment doubt that he is a boy trapped in the middle of the conflict. Leonor Verela (who had the title role in the TV mini-series Cleopatra), best known for her good looks, shows depth as an actress. Respected international actors José Maria Yzapik (as Uncle Beto) and Daniel Giménez Cacho (as the guerilla-supporting priest) round out an accomplished cast.

This is not the first movie made about the El Salvador civil war - Oliver Stone's Salvador comes to mind - but it is the most honest one I have seen. It illustrates the inhumanity of humans to other humans, how power - regardless of the means by which it is achieved - can lead to abuse, and how the victims of war are more than tick marks on a casualty sheet. Innocent Voices is an angry movie, and for good reason. Anything less serious would have been a gross injustice. Mandoki has given us a powerful motion picture. Even those who disagree with the film's politics will be haunted by its message.

Innocent Voices (Mexico/United States/Puerto Rico, 2005)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2005-10-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1