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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Captivating Voices
by Diana Saenger

Innocent Voices, Mexico’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004, has finally made its way into theaters. That’s good news for moviegoers, for anyone who sees it will come away awed, inspired and enthralled by director Luis Mandoki’s movie based on screenwriter Oscar Torres’s real-life experience. In Spanish with English subtitles, this outstanding motion picture has won many awards from film festivals around the world and took Best Feature Film Award at last month’s San Diego Film Festival where young actor Carlos Padilla Lenero also won Best Actor Award.

Torres was a young boy in El Salvador in 1980 when his country was embroiled in one of the most brutal civil wars. His story tells how he escaped becoming a killer or being killed, how he and other children managed to find a sliver of childhood among the bomb blasts, and ultimately how he survived the war both physically and mentally.

Chava (Carlos Padilla) is an 11-year-old boy who suddenly becomes the man of the house when his father leaves the family. Chava is proud to take on the task of helping his hard-working mom, Kella (Leonor Varela) and his little brother and sister.

While Chava tries to maintain his school grades, have fun with his friends and be the man of the house, the impending doom of his 12th birthday is right around the corner. The El Salvadorian government actively recruits (through force) all 12-year-olds to fight.

During sporadic shooting sessions when the government soldiers and the rebel fighters engage each other, it’s quite common for bullets to pour through the cardboard walls of Chava’s home and for the family to grab a mattress and hide under it. Kella’s mother, Torra (Ofelia Medina), who lives a short distance from her daughter’s family, asks them to join her, and Chava’s Uncle Beto (José María Yazpik) wants to hide Chava where the soldiers will not find him.

Chava and his mom refuse both offers, optimistically thinking they will find a way out of both situations. Chava is thrilled when he gets his first real paying job from a bus driver (Jesus Ochoa) who hires him to call out the stops.

The redheaded Hispanic Mandoki, who has made many American films -- Angel Eyes, Message in a Bottle -- told me while in San Diego that he had always wanted to return to his native homeland of Mexico to make a film. “As a director, you’re like a treasure hunter looking for stories,” he said. “I was shooting a commercial for TNT, and I had cast Oscar Torres as one of the actors. He gave me his script and I couldn’t put it down because it was so original.”

The film does have an immediate sense of freshness. But it also transcends into a tragic and realistic view of what life was like for Torres’ family and his fellow countrymen. Chava, who wants to be a kid and explore where life will lead him after kissing Christina (Xuna Primus), the one girl he’s had a crush on for so long, must handle so much more.

Padilla, who made his acting debut in the film, is simply amazing as Chava, thanks in part to Mandoki’s wonderful and sensitive direction. Watching soldiers shoot your two friends in the head, can’t be easy, even when pretending.

“The challenge was to make the kids scared, but also realize that this is what really happens to other kids around the world,” replied Mandoki. “As we were making the movie, the war in Iraq broke out, and I was watching the bombings over Baghdad in the news. It was very clear that this film was telling everyone what the children there were going through during those bombings, and that the news never shows that when we decide to go to war, we don’t think about the children.”

That realization is clearly played out in Innocent Voices. One of the main characters is the Priest, played magnificently by Daniel Giménez Cacho. He feels the responsibility of his faith to protect the youngsters and all the citizens in his parish, but is brutalized by the soldiers whenever he tries to save a life. His failure places an enormous physical and emotional burden on his character that resonates so well in every scene he’s in. Mandoki’s incredible skills are clearly on display here as he translates a story that touched his heart. Many scenes, including an aerial shot of the all the young boys lying on roof tops to hide from the government scouting party, relay more in visuals than words can speak.

Innocent Voices reminds us not only how future generations can be affected by war but also how the human spirit can transcend even the worst tragedy, even when that spirit belongs to an 11-year-old boy.

(Released by Slowhand Releasing and rated “ R” for violence and some language.)

Read Diana Saenger’s reviews of classic films at

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