By Kirk Honeycutt
TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - Luis Mandoki returns to his native Spanish and Latin American themes for the first time since his debut Mexican feature in 1987 with "Innocent Voices," a poignant yet harrowing account of children, and in particular one rambunctious boy, during the Salvadoran civil war.
You immediately sense Mandoki's profound affinity for this subject and its characters, a passion not always evident in his routine Hollywood movies.
"Innocent Voices" is a riveting tale of survival and how even war cannot diminish a child's indomitable spirit. The film should find highly appreciative audiences in specialty venues in North America and Europe as well as in cinemas throughout Latin America.
First-time screenwriter Oscar Torres has drawn on his own incredible experiences as a child trying to grow up in El Salvador during the civil war of the '80s. A father abandons his poor family at the outbreak of war to go to the U.S., leaving Chava (Carlos Padilla) as the "man of the house." A naturally happy kid, Chava lives in a rude shack with his sister, younger brother and hard-working mom (fast-rising Chilean actress Leonor Varela). The army is already "recruiting" 12-year-old boys, pulling them at gunpoint from classrooms at the local school. Chava is 11, meaning he has one year left.
Their village lies between the capital and the guerrilla forces, making it a constant battleground. Many nights, the frightened family hits the floor or ducks behind upturned mattresses to escape bullets that pound through the cardboard walls. During daytime, Chava stake his claim to normalcy by attending class, falling in love with a pretty classmate, playing games with his pals along with the village idiot (Gustavo Munoz) and getting a job on a bus to help out with expenses.
His uncle (Jose Maria Yazpik), who fights for the guerillas, has given him a transistor radio so he can listen to the forbidden guerrilla broadcasts and especially its banned musical anthem. He witnesses the soldiers' harassment of the local priest (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) and their abduction of young girls to satisfy their lust.
The war finally forces the family to move in with their grandmother (Ofelia Medina), but even here they are not safe. Soldiers raid the village to kidnap more children to become soldiers. The boys learn to hide on the corrugated tin roofs of the houses.
Pedilla, who has acted in telenovelas, has an expressive face and superb acting ability that allows him to carry the film. (He is in virtually every scene.) His spirit makes this an uplifting film rather than a huge downer.
His Chava is a resilient child, clearly unafraid of death yet deadly afraid of being recruited to kill. Varela's mother is resilient too only as an adult, fear rules her life as her family is exposed to constant danger.
Mandoki and his accomplished cinematographer, Juan Ruiz Anchia, resist the temptation to make a gritty film about warfare; instead they shoot the lush jungle, town and the villages in delicate, pleasing colors, creating a dramatic contrast between the carnage taking place and the land's great beauty.
"Innocent Voices" accomplishes this: It shows warfare from a child's perspective as well as from an omniscient observer's point of view as the camera sweeps up above villages and into trees to show us rain pelting the shantytown and soldiers industriously going about their murderous business. It is at once intimate and epic.
The film was shot in Mexico with a top-notch crew, which along with Andre Abujamra's Latin-flavored musical score gives "Innocent Voices" a persuasive sense of the hell that was rural El Salvador of 20 years ago.
Thursday, September 23, 2004
More on "Innocent Voices"
A review has now come out on the new feature-length film on El Salvador, "Innocent Voices," and it is very encouraging. The review is from Reuters/Hollywood Reporter, but I'm not sure how long it will be online, so I'll print most of it here.
Posted by David at 9:18 AM