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Up on the Roof: The children of 'Innocent Voices' take a rare break from the violence of their lives.

War Kids

'Innocent Voices' examines the children who grew up as soldiers in El Salvador

By Richard von Busack

TAKEN SPECIFICALLY as a story of child soldiers—and children who hope to avoid this unimaginable fate—Innocent Voices has universal relevance. After all, the daring hints about child-soldiering in Lord of War lent that platitudinous picture some importance. But the specifics of the Salvadoran civil war (198089) are just as worth remembering, seeing as how the recently deified Ronald Reagan escaped that particular murder rap.

Why flay Reagan's dead bones? The pundits who brayed that El Salvador was a communist dagger pointed at the heart of Honduras are still alive and well. The long-memoried will recall the local politician who argued that it was our Christian duty to "rescue" El Salvador, as it was the only nation on the globe ever named after Jesus ("The Savior," in gringoese). Speaking of Jesus, the Catholic Archdiocese in El Salvador kept score: 41,000 killed by rightist death squads, 776 by leftist guerillas, $6 billion spent—$1 billion of it migrated from the U.S. Treasury to the pockets of nun-raping patriots. Creating democracy is a lot like making sausage—it involves a load of bloody pigs.

Based on a true story, Innocent Voices tells of the thick of the war, when young Chava (Carlos Padilla Leñera), is waiting in dread for his 12th birthday. At that time, he'll be swept up by the army press gangs who are combing the schools for fresh recruits. In his movie, Mexico's official entry in last year's Oscars, Luis Mendoki doesn't spare the terrors of the civil war—the automatic-weapon fire that commences every night, keeping Chava's barrio pinned down behind mattresses. Mendoki, who has been laboring on indifferent Hollywood films (Angel Eyes was one of the most recent), has returned to the Mexican film industry during this recent flowering of talent. He re-creates the rural, rainy season of El Salvador in Vera Cruz.

Although the poverty is great, perhaps some of the exiled Salvadorans in our area will find Innocent Voices' visuals rich-looking compared to their homeland. I hope they'll forgive Innocent Voices, since it includes a flavor of comedy—with Jesús Ochoa's expert clowning as a boorish but kind bus driver who gives Chava a job. Also, the film realizes that the pleasures of a child's life continue in wartime, as in Hope and Glory. The intensity of the danger is contrasted with Chava's crush on a schoolteacher's daughter (played by the irresistible Xuna Primas). Writing from his memories, co-screenwriter Oscar Torres uses a song of the day as the background: "Casas de Cartons," by the Venezuelan folk singer Ali Primera, heard in a hit version by Los Guaraguao. It was banned by the Salvadoran government for its demoralizing references to people living in cardboard shacks—as if even a mention of the poverty was too much for the government to stand. The most lyrical scene is the image of boys camping on the tin roofs of their shanties to hide from the soldiers. These nights give Chavo and his friends the sight of thousands of stars. Innocent Voices is like that; it doesn't neglect the stars even when it follows the polished boots trampling the mud.

Innocent Voices (R; 120 min.), directed by Luis Mandoki, written by Mandoki and Oscar Torres, photographed by Juan Ruiz Anchía and starring Carlos Padilla Leñera, opens Friday at Camera 12 and Ciné[email protected] Row.

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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