INNOCENT VOICES (Luis Mandoki, 2004)

From Mexico, the U.S. and Puerto Rico, in Spanish, Voces inocentes is based on Oscar Orlando Torres’s own experiences as a child in El Salvador in the 1980s. The national army conducts a reign of terror burning homes, killing civilians, confiscating land. Now that his father has abandoned them for the U.S., 11-year-old “Chava”—that is, Torres—is “the man of the family.” Luis Mandoki directed from his and Torres’s script.
     Evoking childhood, one scene shows children launching “fireflies”—lit balloons—into the nighttime heavens. But mainly this is a film about shattered innocence. Suddenly, automatic-weapon bullets rip into homes, inflicting death and misery. Raids on the school kidnap boys for army service when they turn twelve; young girls are impressed into prostitution. The local priest, as do the peasants, support the guerrillas despite being repeatedly caught in the cross-fire. The people’s struggle is fueled by a hope for justice, which is embodied in a banned song that Chava has learned from his uncle, one of the guerrillas.
     U.S. soldiers play a hideous and shameful role in the civil war, training the Salvadoran Army to be more proficient at mayhem, torture and murder while dispensing chewing gum to children in an effort to ingratiate themselves, perhaps deluded by their own government into believing that they are the “good guys.” We watch Chava narrowly miss the fate that befalls two of his playmates: point-blank, a bullet in the back of the head.
     Fascistic terror is powerfully rendered. Alas, some of the familial scenes merely set up the scenes of terror.
     The children’s encounter with one of their impressed schoolmates, now armed and deadly, is dubious. The flicker of envy behind his vicious show of prowess: Torres cannot be recalling this; Mandoki must be “reading it in.”

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