The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts April 20, 2007

Film Captures Innocence But No More

The 2004 Mexican film, Voces inocentes, was screened last Thursday as a part of the “Trade in the Americas” event series. The film belongs to a long tradition of war movies with child protagonists. In this case, the war is the early 1980s civil war that devastated El Salvador. The setting is a tiny village caught directly between the US-supported government army and the rebel guerrillas; the movie is told from the point of view of 12-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla), who faces forced conscription in the government army. 

When the movie focuses on the ugliness of innocents caught up in warfare, it is usually on firm ground. Violence erupts in this sleepy little village with a shocking, cataclysmic force, and it’s completely unexpected. There are sequences that stay with you: a young girl dying from a stray bullet as her mother cradles her; a boy walking through the rubble of a loved one’s house; another boy wetting himself as he stands in line, waiting to be conscripted. 

Where the movie fails is in the quieter scenes. Instead of creating three-dimensional, multifaceted characters, director Luis Mandoki and co-writer Oscar Orlando Torres rely on a collection of tired devices: the hard-working, gritty mom (Leonor Varela); the kindly, noble priest (Daniel Gim&eacute;nez Cacho); the schoolboy crush; the grouchy but lovable father figure. 

Between the outbursts of violence, the movie is pretty predictable and tired. When Chava’s mother emphatically warns him not to stay out after curfew, you know he’ll end up staying out late. This movie claims to be based on true events, but is anyone’s life really this full of clich&eacute;s?

In their very different ways, movies like Ren&eacute; Cl&eacute;ment’s French classic Forbidden Games (1952), the Taviani brothers’ The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) and Guillermo del Toro’s recent Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) allow the viewer to enter the minds of traumatized children. They don’t just show us horrific events through the eyes of children; they make us understand how these children think and feel, and how they fight against their violent surroundings. 

Voces inocentes doesn’t have that kind of imaginative power. Mandok, whose previous credits include Message in a Bottle (1999) and Angel Eyes (2001), is content to show us children being treated cruelly and saying, “This is bad.” Nor is he as adept with his child actors as Clement or del Toro. To be fair, though, he does suggest the ease with which children can be brainwashed.

Padilla has a fine camera face, but the expressive range of his performance is too limited, though I doubt this is his fault. No child actor should be asked to carry the operatic anguish of the scene where Chava sits in the rain, weeping over a lost loved one in giant close-up. Poor little Chava goes through an awful lot over the course of this movie, but as far as we can tell, he’s pretty much the same at the end as at the beginning.  He has no psychological depth or development. He’s a leaf on the wind who happens to land in a fortunate spot.

Then again, maybe it’s the depth of the character that is limited and not the range of Padilla’s performance. 


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