Innocent Voices (Voces Inocentes) is a powerful, socially conscious war film about an 11-year-old boy finding his place during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. The film, from experienced director Luis Mandoki (Message in a Bottle, Angel Eyes), shows the war through the eyes of Chava (Carlos Padilla), a young boy forced to become the "man of the house" when his father abandons the family in search of a better life in the United States.
At that time in El Salvador, the government began recruiting boys for the army when they turned 12. This leaves Chava in fear of his imminent birthday as he watches his friends being forced to join the army. His village becomes a war zone and his schoolyard transforms as the government and guerilla soldiers send bullets through the windows nightly. The imagery is powerful because it does not focus on the gore and violence so common in war films today, but instead shows pain and terror. Emotional scenes illustrating thefear of a mother whose son hasn't yet returned from school take precedence over gruesome depictions of murder and torture.
The opening shot of a group of young boys being herded through the rain and mud by armed guards to an unknown fate sets the tone for the entire film. Based on the true story of its screenwriter Oscar Torres, the film shows the progression of a young boy who goes from playing in the streets to dodging recruitments and bullets almost overnight.
Innocent Voices asks the question of whether or not innocence can be preserved in a time of war-especially in a country where fighting takes place in the streets.
In a discussion with the viewers following a screening of the film, Mandoki stressed the social relevance of the movie at a time when war is acknowledged but not completely comprehended by Americans. Because the fighting is not happening in our backyards, many Americans are unaware of the realities and cruelties of war.
"It is important for me to bring this movie into this country," Mandoki said. "[It] should be watched by children because children are our future."
The film may be too upsetting for most young viewers because of the intense subject matter and the harrowing scenes of emotional anguish, but it effectively sends a message about what is happening to adolescents in other countries today and the consequences and pain of war. Mandoki said he hopes this film will open Americans' eyes to the situations facing youth around the world because he said many are far removed from situations abroad.
"It is important to know what happened then, but unfortunately it's happening today," Mandoki said. "They never show you what's happening inside schools and houses."
Beyond the pain and suffering of the film, however, comes a story of hope and perseverance.
The film follows Chava as he begins to understand the situation surrounding him and makes decisions to protect his family and community. The movie transitions from a depiction of war to an exploration of human resolve. This is most vividly portrayed in a scene in which all the young boys have climbed onto roofs to hide from recruiting soldiers and spend the night counting stars. Despite the situations the children face, they are able to turn negative experiences into something positive, even if only for a moment. The children encounter distress and experience such loss, but continue to look toward a better future.
The quality of the film is compounded by the casting of young Chava. According to the director, hundreds of boys auditioned for the part but they settled on first-time film actor Padilla because "there was an amazing quality about him in his face [and] eyes."
Padilla is able to perfectly balance vulnerability and courage while convincing the viewers of his innocence despite the unimaginable experiences he is faces. Although the movie is in Spanish with English subtitles, Padilla's reactions and expressions are more than enough to understand the emotional intricacies of the film.
The imagery, performances and narrative voice of the movie come together to create a powerful commentary on the effect war has on the children who are exposed to its violence and suffering. If you are expecting a warm and cuddly date movie, this is not it; but, if you do not mind leaving the theater with a few shed tears and some new perspectives on war, then Innocent Voices is a movie that should not be missed.