Based on a true story, Luis Mandoki’s Voces Inocentes aka Innocent Voices is going directly on my list of all time favourites, regardless of the genre. This Mexico/US/Puerto Rico co-production is an astonishingly beautiful movie despite the atrocities it depicts. It is simply awesome and as good as Army of Crime about which I raved last year. It is one of the movies on my Children in War Movies List and a s such worth watching in any case.
What makes this movie so incredible is the fact that it works on many levels. It is as much the story of a childhood and a little boy, as an in-depth look at a way of life we are less than familiar with and a civil war we have almost forgotten about. Last but not least it shows the portrait of a mother (Leonor Varela) whose spirited fight and love for her children makes her one of the most memorable and dignified characters I have seen in any movie.
The war, that started in 1980 and lasted 12 years, was initially a conflict between the army and the campesinos, the land owners, over land rights. When they didn’t come to an arrangement the campesinos formed a guerilla, the FMLN, to defend their rights. The war escalated into a bloody civil war. On top of that the US felt the urge to provide the Army with weapons and heir assisstance, fearing that the guerrilleros would be supported by the USSR. The war cost 75’000 lives and over 1 Mio people fled the country. Lacking men, the Army recruited young boys who were barely 12 years old. Oscar Torres, who wrote the script, is the model for Chava, the little boy, whose story we see.
The movie starts with soldiers escorting little boys holding their hands over their heads, to an execution place. They walk in the pouring rain and we hear Chava’s voice in the off. It’s a beautifully filmed scene that immediately sets the tone for the whole movie. We will see many scenes that take place in the pouring rain and are of great beauty despite the fact that they show horrors.
Chava (Carlos Padilla) lives alone with his mother and his little brother and sister. The father has fled the country and gone to the US. Chava’s young and beautiful mother, Kella, is truly a memorable character. Tender and fierce at the same time, she defends her children and fights for their survival. These are the poorest of the poor, their houses are only shacks with cardboard roofs. Kella tries to make a living as a seamstress. Imagine living in a shack when at night there is fighting in the roads. Bullets easily enter the walls of the houses and come flying past your head, there is hardly any cover apart from mattresses that are build up against those thinnest of walls. It is hard to imagine that people not only lived in such poverty but had to endure a war like this that threatened their lives on a daily basis. Many got killed like this, in their own house.
Young Chava is a cheerful and funny little boy. Despite the war, he plays with his friends, falls in love with a little girl, fights with his mother, finds a means to earn money. Even though they have nothing, live precariously, his childhood seems almost enchanted. The tiniest things amuse him, he lives with great intensity, knows no boredom.
The main theme of the movie is the threat that the soldiers will come and get Chava and his friends. We see many scenes in which little boys are recruited by force. The procedures are quite upsetting. Some of the boys around Chava finally decide to join the guerilla in order to avoid the military. And that is what little Chava does in the end as well. The final scene of the movie brings us back to the beginning. Chava and his friends have joined the guerilla and were caught by the Army. Unless they get help, they will most probably be executed.
The actors are amazing, especially the children. They are really awesome. The movie is full of beautiful scenes that allow us to have a look at these precarious lives in poverty. They convey a melancholic beauty that is quite special. There are a few songs that are important in the movie. They had been forbidden by the army but were listened to anyway.
The movie manages to mix a lot of different tones. At times it is sad and melancholic, at times it is thoughtful almost meditative, then again it’s funny or just downright tragic. Innocent voices is a gem, a must-see.
One final word: the people from El Salvador were apparently not entirely happy about this movie because none of the actors is from El Salvador and it has been filmed in Mexico.