The effect of war on children has been the subject of some extraordinary films, with “Forbidden Games” unquestionably the finest but “Hope and Glory” not far behind. In such exalted company Luis Mandoki’s “Innocent Voices” doesn’t quite measure up, lapsing too frequently into heart-on-sleeve calculation. But it’s good enough to merit a spot on the second tier, and it does focus attention on a circumstance that’s grown increasingly common in the modern age: the use of children as soldiers.
The script by Oscar Torres is based on his own experience growing up in El Savador during the 1980s, when the country was ravaged by a terrible civil war. It concentrates on his surrogate Chava (diminutive charmer Carlos Padilla), who’s become the “man” of the family home in their rural town when his father abandons wife Kella (Leonor Varela) and their children. Chava is eleven years old–a dangerous age, since the government regularly forces boys of twelve to join the army. But Chava may not reach his next birthday in any event, since their home lies on the front lines of the conflict, and night is likely to find it in the crossfire between the two sides. To complicate matters further, Chava’s Uncle Beto (Jose Maria Yazpik) is a member of the insurgency, and acts as a sort of magnet for the boys of the locality who might want to join the guerillas.
As structured by Torres and directed by Mandoki, “Innocent Voices” is a curious combination of the tragically powerful and the overtly sentimental. On the one side there are scenes such as a tense, grim one in which soldiers invade the school to draft boys who have just turned twelve, and another in which the family must hide on the floor, encased in hastily-collected mattresses, while the bullets of the contending armies whiz through the house. And an incident in which the boys lie down on the roofs of the town to hide from recruiters has an almost surrealistic frisson. On the other hand, Chava’s puppy-love interest in a classmate is the stuff of weak pre-teen comedy (at one point he does a little dance in front of her house that might be adorable but is also more than a little mawkish), and his temporary job as the announcer of street names on a bus, leading to an episode in which he gets sick to his stomach as a result of accidentally ingesting some gasoline, has an aura of cuteness about it. Worse still is his friendship with a mentally-challenged fellow named Ancha (Gustavo Munoz), which could be worse only if Robin Williams played the man (and has just the payoff you’d expect). Even the wrenching finale–in which Chava and some of his classmates are marked for execution after the try to join the rebels–is marred by a tendency to linger a bit too long on the boy’s face; the sense of manipulation becomes rather overpowering.
The same dichotomy is seen in Padilla’s performance. He’s unquestionably an adorable kid, but while in some scenes (that school recruiting sequence, for instance, and much of the final execution episode) he’s genuinely moving, at other times he shows a tendency to mug for the camera. But for that Mandoki must be held responsible. His work likewise veers from strong to overly permissive. Still he gets some solid supporting performances (as from Daniel Gimenez Cacho, as the town priest, by turns stern and compassionate, and from Varela as well as the other children), and this certainly represents better work than any of his Hollywood films. There’s a rough quality to the picture’s technical side, but though the cinematography of Juan Ruiz Anchia rarely achieves the poetic touch that might have elevated the material, it’s at least decent.
The sincerity and earnestness of “Innocent Voices” are beyond doubt. It’s a pity that the film’s execution doesn’t always match them. Still, it’s a mostly laudable effort, even though it comes up as short as its little hero when compared to the real masterpieces of the genre.