- Innocent Voices (Voces Innocentes)
Director: Luis Mandoki
Jose Maria Yazpick
Mexico, 120 mins.
Innocent Voices was Mexico’s entry into the 77th Academy Awards international films category, even though it had not been released yet. One can see why it was submitted so early. It has a very important story to tell and as a film it is sheer brilliance, doubled with poignancy and such emotion – not expected from Luis Mandoki who normally dabbles within the Hollywood sphere.
Innocent Voices (Voces Innocentes) is based on the true story of screenwriter Oscar Torres’ embattled childhood. It is the poignant tale of Chava (Carlos Padilla), an eleven–year–old boy who suddenly becomes the man of the house after his father abandons the family in the middle of a civil war. In the 1980’s, the government’s armed forces are already recruiting twelve–year–olds, rousting them out of their classes at the local middle school. The scenes are harrowing as Chava’s life is literally turned upside down, with some of his friends taken away by force before his eyes and watching his mother sew dresses well into night to try and feed her children.
If he is lucky, Chava has just one year of innocence left. One year before he, too, will be conscripted to fight the government’s battle against the peasant rebels of the FMLN. Thus, Chava’s life becomes a game of survival, not only from the bullets of the escalating war, but also from the dispiriting effects of daily violence. He hustles to find work to help his single mother pay the bills, and experiences the pangs of first love for a beautiful classmate. Chava’s tiny home village becomes both playground and battlefield. Armed with the love of his mother (Leonor Varela) and a small radio that broadcasts a forbidden anthem of love and peace, and faced with the impossible choice of joining either the army or the rebels, Chava finds the courage to keep his heart open and his spirit alive in his own race against time.
In films, child actors normally serve to arouse sympathy and add a “cutness” factor along with a rather nauseating vulnerability. Starring mostly children, one might think that Innocent Voices would mostly arouse its sympathy from giving the children a silly script to read out with huge bambi eyes. Thankfully, Hollywood is nowhere to be seen and it can be very safely said (coming from someone who hates child actors) that the children in this film give some the best performances ever to be captured on film from their age group. Carlos Padilla is stunning. He is riveting to watch, feisty, caring and thoughtful. This is his film debut and what a debut it is. All the children in the film give the most beautiful performances. Leonor Varela proves that she’s not just a pretty face and gives a very moving performance as Chava’s mother, trying desperately to keep her children alive in the midst of the turmoil. Turmoil is the right word and some scenes in the film really are quite distressing. Chava’s house frequently gets riddled with bullets whilst he and his siblings hide behind a stretched mattress against the wall. There’s nothing quite like telling the absolute truth about a situation.
Innocent Voices is a riveting tale of survival and how even war cannot diminish a child’s indomitable spirit. Fabulously shot and with subtitles for those of us incapable of understanding Spanish, it is very highly recommended.