Returning to his native Mexico to shoot for the first time in more than 15 years, director Luis Mandoki has crafted a finer film in “Innocent Voices” than anything he has made during his Hollywood days.
Such U.S. films by Mandoki as “White Palace,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Angel Eyes” were competent, slick and predictable, yet “Innocent Voices” is a raw, powerful portrait of childhood spent in a war zone.
The images are harrowing — Salvadoran children propping mattresses against their rickety walls to shield themselves from cascades of bullets, little boys lying like corpses on house roofs to hide from troops looking to draft them into the army during the civil war in the early 1980s.
And the emotion feels real. The story of one 11-year-old boy’s fight to survive and salvage some of the joys of childhood amid ceaseless bloodshed was based on the experiences of screenwriter Oscar Torres, who escaped from El Salvador and came to the United States in 1986.
An aspiring actor who was appearing in a commercial shot by Mandoki in 2002, Torres pitched the story to the director, who signed on to make the film and help shape the screenplay.
The story opens with a sad rite of manhood for young Chava (Carlos Padilla, making his film debut after appearing in Mexican TV commercials and soap operas). Chava’s father packs up and heads to America, abandoning the family — including the boy’s mother, Kella (Leonor Varela), and his younger sister and brother.
From that opening sequence, Mandoki and Torres set a tone of hardship balanced by humor as Chava responds to his premature responsibilities and adversity with the sweet, simple ignorance of youth.
His mother says “that I was now the man of the house,” Chava observes in wistful narration. “But first, I had to pee,” he adds, scurrying to answer nature’s call.
Chava’s tale is one of matter-of-factly coping with abrupt eruptions of gunfire between army troops and rebels trying to overthrow the government. Battles literally catch villagers in the crossfire, the combatants indifferent to the potential collateral damage as their bullets tear into civilians’ homes and even a school packed with children.
At age 12, boys face conscription into the army, recruiters showing up at school with lists of names and hauling their tiny, tearful new troops away.
In his last year before reaching draft age, Chava crams in as much boyish fun as he can, running with friends, horsing around with a mischievous bus driver who gives him a job, experiencing first love with a classmate.
Yet he also witnesses horrors no child should have to endure, families weeping over bodies, the town’s heroic priest beaten for intervening to protect young girls abducted by soldiers, a riverbank bearing corpses of the executed.
Padilla’s earnest, natural presence lends an almost documentary-style realism to Chava’s plight. The young actor comes off as so genuine and unaffected, he seems scarcely aware of the camera.
Likewise, Varela brings enormous passion and authentic maternal anguish to her role. Standouts among the supporting players include Jose Maria Yazpik as Chava’s rebel uncle and Ofelia Medina as his grandmother.
Where “Innocent Voices” occasionally falters is in the repetition of the action. The firefights that put civilians in harm’s way begin to look alike, while the second time Mandoki pans across a village whose roofs are dotted by prone boys hiding from the army actually weakens what was a powerful image the first time.
Cutting a battle or two might have lent greater impact to Mandoki’s dramatization of the overall war.