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The Independent Critic

Carlos Padilla, Leonor Varela, Xuna Primus, Gustava Munoz
Luis Mandoki
Luis Mandoki, Oscar Orlando Torres
Rated R
120 Mins.
Polychrome/Slowhand (Theatrical), Warner Brothers (DVD)
 "Innocent Voices" Review 
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How much will a mother sacrifice for the love of her son?
"Innocent Voices", winner of the Audience Award at the 2005 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, is the story of 11-year-old Chava, a young boy living in war-torn El Salvador in the 1980's. El Salvador in the 1980's was in the midst of a civil war...the in-power regime was often brutal to its citizens, and began forcibly recruiting young boys at the age of 12 and, quite often, allowing its young soldiers to rape local girls. Chala and his family live between the two war zones in a small village that is frequently the subject of shooting, soldier recruitment and infiltration by both sides. Chala, in essence, has one more year of "innocence"...if, indeed, he can remain innocent while living in the midst of a war zone.

Chala is portrayed by newcomer Carlos Padilla, the son of a mime, who was discovered a mere two weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. Padilla here is called upon for near cinematic greatness...he must convincingly portray a character that is innocent, playful, childlike and hopeful while also becoming the "man of the house" after his father leaves the war-torn nation for the United States and also a grieving, conflicted young boy who watches his friends go off to war and/or die in the streets. He is surrounded by a loving family...his young, suddenly single mother, played beautifully by Leonor Varela, who captured the equivalent of the Mexican Oscar for her performance here. Likewise, Chala's siblings are played with simple grace by Adrian Alonso and Alejandro Felipe.

Screenwriter Oscar Torres was present for this screening, and it is his life story upon which the film is based. Torres escaped El Salvador at the age of 14, and was able to get his family out six years later. He studied at University of California-Berkeley and began acting in commercials, then gradually has been able to land TV and film roles. Yet, Torres openly admits that writing "Innocent Voices" was a personal exorcism for him and he clearly still feels deeply this experience from his childhood. Torres spoke openly and freely about his distaste for American support of the El Salvador government at the time (millions of dollars and training), while also being in touch with the fact that his life has improved while being here. Torres spoke most passionately about the approximately 40 nations that continue to utilize child soldiers, and the absolute necessity of having a place to dialogue and process war for those who experience it.

The screenplay is, in fact, the strength of this film and elevates this film considerably. Torres seems to be in touch with how much "in your face" conflict an audience can handle, and intersperses the tragedies with moments of great tenderness and hope. Early on, there are scenes where yet another conflict is taking place and mother has gone to work. The children are left to fend for themselves...These scenes are powerful because, perhaps, they give us a true glimpse into the psyche of a child living in a war zone. There's the youngest sibling, who cries and is terrified...the older sister, perhaps more mature, but very firmly in the female "role" in Central America and thus defers to her brother, Chala. Yet, they work together...the protect each other, hold each other and simply do what they must do. It is a powerful, almost beyond powerful, scene that sets the tone for the scenes to come.

Young Chala experiences young love, though these scenes are a touch less convincing AND his scenes with townspeople, most notably, the local priest, are powerful, revealing and haunting.

Stellar cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia perfectly balances the beauty of El Salvador with the ugliness of war. There is a scene near the end involving young boys who have tried to escape (including Chala), utilizing the rebellion (the real life FMLN, now an El Salvadorean political party) who are captured by government soldiers. This scene is directed perfectly by Luis Mandoki, who has directed films of great humanity (such as "Gaby") and great intensity (such as "When a Man Loves a Woman"). Torres shared considerably regarding the shooting of this scene and the impact of it on the children.

The film is produced by Lawrence Bender, who has produced all of Tarantino's films and many others that uniquely balance humanity in all of its glory and rage. "Innocent Voices" was Mexico's submission to last year's Oscars and it is shameful it was nominated. A distribution deal has just been reached in the US, as the film was officially released last year in mostly Latin American countries (including El Salvador). The film is in 11 cities this week, and goes in a wider release in two weeks.

In many ways, "Innocent Voices" has the rage and the authenticity that was occasionally missing from "Hotel Rwanda." While superior in many ways, "Hotel Rwanda" often felt staged and dramatized. "Innocent Voices" FEELS like the real story of a real nation in a real war costing real lives and destroying the innocence of real
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic