Innocent Voices

After churning out such big-studio claptrap as MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (1999) and ANGEL EYES (2001), Mexican-born director Luis Mandoki tries his hand at a subject far more serious: the forced conscription of peasant children into the army during El Salvador's brutal civil war. El Salvador, 1980: Left alone to raise a family while her husband seeks a better...read more

Reviewed by Ken Fox
Rating:

After churning out such big-studio claptrap as MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (1999) and ANGEL EYES (2001), Mexican-born director Luis Mandoki tries his hand at a subject far more serious: the forced conscription of peasant children into the army during El Salvador's brutal civil war. El Salvador, 1980: Left alone to raise a family while her husband seeks a better life for himself in the U.S., hardworking Kella (Leonor Varela) and her three children — 11-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla), his little brother, Ricardito (Alejandro Felipe), and their sister, Rosita — are left to fend for themselves in a tiny village that's become a blood-spattered battlefield. Their town is the last settlement between the advancing peasant-founded FMLN guerilla army and the capital city of San Salvador, and it's a rare night that passes without shrapnel and bullets raining through the windows and thin walls of the villagers' homes. Huddled under a bed and using a mattress as his only shield, Chava tries to calm his terrified brother and sister until the fighting stops and their mother, who works late into the night, comes home. Traumatic as the nights are, the town's boys are more afraid of school, because that's where the Salvadoran army routinely looks for boys over the age of 12, boys old enough to carry a gun in the army's opinion. Rounded up and loaded into a truck, these children are torn from their friends and families and taught to fight rebel soldiers, some of whom are members of their own families. Loosely based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Oscar Torres, who wrote the script while working as a busboy in L.A., the film opens with a terrifying shot of a group of young boys — Chava included — being forced by armed Salvadoran soldiers to march through the jungle in the pouring rain. But the promise that Mandoki will directly tackle the still-epidemic problem of child soldiers goes unfulfilled; he instead delivers a slightly sentimental story of the persistence of childhood under the worst imaginable conditions. Nevertheless, location shooting gives this intermittently powerful film a semidocumentary feel, and Mandoki makes no bones about the fact that the soldiers who turn schoolchildren into killers by day and murder civilians by night are trained by U.S. troops.

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