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People talk about the World Wars, or Vietnam, or the Gulf, making dozens of movies about each, but then there are the perhaps less-discussed studies that make for just as important, emotional and harrowing voyages, like the Balkan conflicts. These ostensibly civil wars are in some ways even more horrific than wars between different nations, with fellow countrymen turned against one another, former neighbours made into deadly adversaries. El Salvador did one better. It took little children and made them choose sides in the conflict, forcing boys as young as twelve to join the US-backed Salvadorian soldiers to fight the country’s very own guerrillas (terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective). Whatever the justifications that each side had, there should have been a line drawn that nobody with any humanity left should cross but, as has been the case ever since the biblical days of Herod massacring all the newborn Jewish boys, it seems inevitable that children will get played as pawns in these horrendous conflicts.

Innocent Voices

Feature


It is the height of the civil war in El Salvador. The left-wing Government has been forcibly ousted by a much more oppressive, US-backed new Government, who the people understandably do not seem to like very much. Rebelling against the new regime, a band of self-proclaimed freedom fighters use guerrilla tactics to fight what becomes a twelve-year conflict, and this movie puts us in the middle of it all with one particular young family who have to deal with the conflict in their very own back yard.

Kella is a young single mother, the father of her children having fled to America at the first sign of conflict. Left to raise two young boys and a girl, she struggles to make and sell clothes in a desperate bid to put food on the table. She has help from friends and family in the close community but they are all largely in the same situation. With the father gone, the eldest boy, Chavita, takes it upon himself to become the ‘man of the house’, even though he is only eleven. He gets a job as a ticket collector on a bus to help pay the bills and often runs around delivering his mother’s clothes for sale. He even takes a fancy to a young female classmate at his school.

Innocent Voices
But as the fighting gets closer and closer to his shanty-town home, Chavita discovers that everything is changing—his twelve-year-old friends are being taken at gunpoint to join the soldiers, or shot if they disobey, and he is not far away from his twelfth birthday. He sees what the soldiers do—their abuse of the young village women, their maltreatment of the priest—and it is not long before his mind drifts to joining the rebels. His uncle is a rebel fighter, an idol for Chavita, who comes to sing them songs whilst lying on the floor as the bullets whiz overhead, and at some point Chavita must decide between staying with his mother and risking being forcibly drafted to fight for the corrupt soldiers or fleeing to join the rebels across the river.

Innocent Voices is a remarkably intimate, personal voyage through this hellish civil conflict, showing you the effect that the fighting had on an average everyday family in the war-torn area. Without making the soldiers into comic-book villains, it instead shows the effect that every shockingly horrific act by them has on this innocent young boy, Chavita, and how he comes to eventually decide on what is right and what is wrong. Much of the credit for the power and force of the vehicle comes down to the strength of the acting talent on show, despite the lack of a named cast.

Innocent Voices
You may recognise the innately beautiful Leonor Varela (from Blade II) as the struggling young mother, Kella, although the real star is the young child actor who plays her son, Chavita. Unlike many of his Japanese and Western counterparts, this talented young man is very capable of portraying a child desperate to act his age but unable to with the weight of responsibility that is on his young shoulders. There are such wonderful moments to show how torn he is—like when he is serenading his young sweetheart or teasing his older sister for being ‘farty’, compared with when he is running around trying to help people as the bullets and shells are fired overhead. Since the whole movie focuses mainly on him, his excellent performance really makes it all the more rewarding a watch.

Beautifully constructed, well observed and well acted, Innocent Voices paints a mostly bleak picture of the horrific civil conflict in El Salvador, carrying you through the duration using traces of hope and joy emanating from the poor innocent civilians caught up in the midst of the war. Relying on emotional performances rather than effects (like its bigger brother, the Oliver Stone-directed, James Woods-starring movie Salvador), it is captivating from start to finish and whether or not you end up picking a side yourself, you do feel greatly for the families torn apart in the middle of it all.

’I’m not gonna’ lie to you and tell you it’s gonna’ get better—it’ll get worse before it gets better.’

Innocent Voices

Video


Innocent Voices is presented with a fairly gritty, realistic 1.78:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. Detail is reasonably good throughout, but there are clear signs of softness and heavy layers of grain in some shots, often intended to make the movie feel more real. The colour scheme also captures the humid, sweaty and dirty shanty-town well and with blacks reasonably solid and the transfer itself exhibiting no signs of any print defects, it is basically a video presentation which is perfectly in line with the material.

Audio


We get a fairly decent Dolby Digital 5.1 track to accompany the movie, especially considering its low-budget roots. Dialogue is presented clearly and coherently in the original Spanish language, a few effects like bullets whizzing overhead and explosions (which allow for some minimal LFE action) give the surrounds plenty to do and a haunting soundtrack plays sporadically to help bring the emotion out of viewers. There are a few particularly noteworthy moments, like when the heavy rain is pounding the corrugated iron rooftops, and overall this is an above-average effort.

Extras


We get nothing but a basic trailer in the way of extras, although the revolving menu was quite nice, despite its simplicity.

Innocent Voices

Overall


Innocent Voices is an emotional voyage, telling the tale of a young family in war-torn El Salvador. Well written and directed, it really comes into its own with the superb performances, particularly by the younger cast members. The DVD release has a decent enough transfer and noteworthy audio, although the lack of extras was a little disappointing when you consider the wealth of historical commentary that could be applied to this based-on-a-true-story production. Still, this movie is well worth going out of your way to see.


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