Carlos Padilla as Chava
Leonor Varela as Kella
Xuna Primus as Cristina Maria
Gustavo Muñoz as Ancha
José María Yazpik as Uncle Beto
Ofelia Medina as Mama Toya
Daniel Giménez Cacho as Priest
Eleven-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) is just beginning to come of age in war torn El Salvador. Unfortunately, coming of age in El Salvador is often as not a death sentence, because it means you’re old enough to be forcibly recruited into the Army and sent off to fight the guerillas. Being pulled in multiple directions in his life – by his mother (Leonor Varela), by his guerilla leader Uncle Beto (José María Yazpik), by the local priest (Daniel Giménez Cacho), the government, and his own heart – Chava fights both to stay alive and to lead the normal life of a young boy, but more and more everyday the choice is being taken out of his hands.
It’s depressing – God, is it depressing – in a way that only a film about growing up amidst a Central American civil war can be, but it is also often uplifting, and that is a tricky balance to pull off.
Director Luis Mandoki (“Angel Eyes,” “Message in a Bottle”) has had a fairly unremarkable career as a director of mediocre Hollywood thrillers and dramas, but he really shows off his chops here, and “Voices” doesn’t pull any punches. There’s a certain tide to the structure of the story – a moment of peace, followed by violence, a moment of peace, followed by violence – that becomes more than a little predictable as it goes on, but it works none the less. When the Priest calls the town together, within the hearing of the local army, to admonish those who would use violence as their way and urges people to look for grace even in the most trying of circumstances (and it’s hard to think of anything moreso than what’s happening on screen), it’s one of the finest film moments of the year.
Carlos Padilla is a little flat as Chava, often sounding like he’s reading his lines rather than speaking them. He’s a child actor and he gives a typical child actor’s performance, but he has a wonderfully expressive face that is used to great effect, particularly towards the incredibly raw climax, having lost everything, he must decide whether or not to take up weapons and become a killer himself.
On the other end of the child actor spectrum, Xuna Primus as his first crush is note perfect, and the film could have done with a lot more of her, and less of Chava playing with a bus driver or his mentally handicapped friend Ancha (Gustavo Muñoz). Mandoki tries to give as balanced a view of everyone in Chava’s life as possible, to show everything he has to gain or lose, but some of those moments drag.
The real standout, though, is Leonor Varella (“Blade II”) as Chava’s more than put upon mother, trying to raise three children alone in quite possibly the worst of all circumstances. Functioning despite a state of near constant panic, she has to make hard decisions to keep her family alive. It would have been easy just to make her weepy or upset all the time, but Mandoki and Varella have drawn Kella out more than that, making her real.
All together, it is a fine peace of filmmaking that manages the difficult task of being political without being (too) heavy-handed, and being depressing but with an uplifting message at heart.
It’s a bit of a toil to get through, there’s an awful lot of misery on screen, but it’s worth it in the end.
“Innocent Voices” is rated R for disturbing violence and some language.