Innocent Voices

Movies like to portray war through the eyes of children. It is an easy way to show how chaotic and confusing the whole thing can be. Children are innocent, and can look at things from a fresh perspective. Is fighting really worth it? As seen from a child's eyes, probably not. Innocent Voices looks a the civil war in El Salvador that raged throughout the 1980s through the eyes of Chava (Carlos Padilla), a young boy who becomes the head of his household after his father disappears. The problem with this technique is that filmmakers use this to try to wring as much cloying emotion out of a story as possible. This is true of director Luis Mandoki (Trapped, Angel Eyes) here. The images are searing and memorable, but when combined with Chava's story, Innocent Voices becomes lame and preachy.

His mother Kella (Leonor Varella, Blade II, Texas Rangers) believes he is coming back, but the chances of that actually happening are slim. El Salvador is a place of chaos. The government, backed by the United States, is fighting rebels. Both sides are conscripting young boys once they reach twelve. Chava is eleven. He is aware of the danger around him, but he still wants to be a kid. Still, when his mother is absent and the bullets start flying, he is the first to protect his young brother and sister. However, Mandoki and co-writer Oscar Orlando mess up the story by trying to make the audience empathize more with Chava. He has a crush on Cristina Maria (Xuna Primus) and even plays with a grown man who seems mildly retarded (Gustavo Munoz, Amores Perros).

These scenes become excessively cheesy. Instead of becoming moving when contrasted with the war scenes, everything becomes sappy. There is even a public service announcement-like message at the end of the film. Moreover, some scenes repeat, and there is not enough of a story to sustain two full hours. Padilla is not much of an actor. Mandoki casts him not from his acting ability, but for the fact that he has big eyes, scruffy hair, and looks very cute. Varela is also wrong for the role. She simply looks too glamorous, even without much makeup. She looks nothing like a lower class citizen from El Salvador looks.

Despite this, Innocent Voices does work when Mandoki focuses on the war. Two scenes stand out; the first when the military arrives at school to forcibly enlist young boys, and the second when Chava and the neighborhood boys hide on top of shacks from the army. Kella moves to safer places, but the war still finds its way to them. There is a feeling of randomness to the violence as it makes its way through the towns. Chava learns to live with it, but it is still shocking. The adults are the most compelling figures, especially the local priest (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Bad Education, Nicotina) who has to make life-or-death decisions to save the people around him. Innocent Voices was the Mexican entry for last year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It's strange that it's coming out pretty close to the time that next year's entries will start screening. Was it worth the wait? Probably not.

Mongoose Rates It: Not That Good.
2 hours, Spanish with English subtitles, Rated R for disturbing violence and some language.

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