Giving 'Voices' To The Children Of War

Chava (Carlos Padilla) spending time with his mother (Leonor Varela)

In times of war, men must make unthinkable decisions and witness atrocity on an almost daily basis, often returning profoundly changed. War has physically and psychologically destroyed brave men and women - people who have rigorously trained their minds and bodies in preparation for it - it's hard to even imagine what effects it would have upon a kid. But that scenario was a sad reality for Oscar Torres, who grew up in the crossfire -literally - of the Salvadorian government and the leftist guerillas it waged a bloody civil war against. Written by Torres based on his own experiences, "Innocent Voices" is the story of the civil war that ravaged El Salvador in the 1980s, told from the perspective of the children who were forced to participate.

When his father leaves, 11-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) must take over as man of the house, helping his mother (Leonor Varela) take care of his young siblings. A big-hearted kid eager to do his part, Chava watches his siblings, works with a bus driver to earn some extra money, and spends the rest of his time playing and enjoying the simple pleasures of childhood. But the war is an ever present threat, and its grim realities encroach upon Chava and his family on a nightly basis. Living between the guerillas and the army, their village is a constant battleground, and taking cover beneath a mattress as bullets beat a staccato on the walls of their shack is a nightly routine.

The days aren't much better. On the verge of turning 12, the age when the Army can "recruit" them - take them from school at gunpoint with no notice and force them to fight - Chava and his friends are living under the shadow of the Army. Despite the harried nights and uncertainty of his future, Chava strives to have a semi-normal childhood - running amok with his friends, playing with the village idiot, and even exploring puppy love with a girl from school. But nothing in the kids' lives can remain easy for very long. As friends are dragged into the Army and the atrocities multiply, Chava begins listening to guerilla radio and discovering more of the awful realities of war. Seeing the courage of his rebel uncle and the village priest, Chava resists in the ways that he can, helping the other kids in his village avoid the recruiters and trying to keep his family safe and together as everything around them is shattered. 

Chava listening to guerilla radio

Mexico's official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language film, "Innocent Voices" is as much a coming of age tale as it is a war story. Rather than giving us a gritty looking glimpse into the battle-hardened gaze of a seasoned fighter, director Luis Mandoki films through the fresh and inquisitive eyes of his young protagonists. Though the death and chaos of war permeate the film, Mandoki doesn't allow them to become his focus. The film isn't about the battles being fought - the gunfire and explosions that decimate the land - it's about the people who are struggling to live their lives amid the devastation without becoming a part of it. Though he captures the war and its brutal costs with an unflinching eye, Mandoki's concentrates on the individuals struggling to survive, the film becomes a tribute to life and the indefatigable determination of the human spirit.

The embodiment of this determination falls onto the small shoulders of Chava and his mother. Standouts among a superb cast of young actors, Padilla and Varela are the heart and soul of the film. With his expressive face and eyes that convey a range of emotions far beyond his years, Padilla is captivating to watch. In his hands, Chava's courage and lust for life come shining through, and we understand what defines his character - he's not afraid of death, but he's terrified of being forced to become a killer like soldiers he despises. The indomitable will and fierce maternal protectiveness projected by Varela completes the pair, and the two actors share a touching chemistry that forms the core of the film. 

Championing the resilience of life even amid the bloody implosion of a nation, "Innocent Voices" is a profoundly affecting film. Instead of blindly trying to mask history with a happy face and a story about children, the film meets its inherent horrors head on. Neither shying away from depicting the atrocities nor slipping into gratuitous violence, the film reminds us that these are people - with hopes and dreams and the simple desire to live - not mere casualties of war. And among the cries of idealism and wartime bravado, perhaps we should instead listen to the voices of the innocent, those who demand not death and destruction, but only the freedom to live.

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