- Innocent Voices (2004) movie review: An uneasy mix of unsettling drama and awkward melodrama, Luis Mandoki’s real-life-inspired Innocent Voices shows how El Salvador’s bloody civil war impinges on the life of a young small-town boy and his family.
Innocent Voices movie review: Luis Mandoki shows grisly Salvadoran Civil War through the eyes of one of its young victims
The power of writer-director Luis Mandoki’s Mexican-made coming-of-age drama Innocent Voices / Voces inocentes lies in its unsparing depiction of the horrors facing children – and, less pivotally, women and men – during El Salvador’s sanguinary civil war, which raged, with American assistance, from 1979 to 1992.
On the downside, Innocent Voices has its undeniable share of weaknesses that detract from its harrowing core. These stem from Mandoki’s over-reliance on ham-handed dramatic devices: An excessive use of close-ups and slow-motion shots, swelling music to underscore emotional scenes, and – in a manner reminiscent of another coming-of-age-in-times-of-war drama, Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants – the portrayal of cutesy pre-teen shenanigans as an obvious contrast to the looming terrors.
Compounding matters for (at least some) Hispanophones, Innocent Voices’ principals are mostly Mexican, a casting choice that has led to complaints that the accents are all wrong.
U.S. backing + 75,000 dead
A little historical context: Although the Salvadoran Civil War took place for the most part during the governments of U.S. Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the Democratic administration of their predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had also helped to finance the Salvadoran military.
It took the December 1980 rape and murder of four – American – missionaries for U.S. aid to be suspended. Even so, Carter would have it reinstated, with the addition of “lethal” aid, shortly before Reagan took office.
Approximately 75,000 people died during that conflict, while more than one million Salvadorans were displaced. Of these, hundreds of thousands fled to other countries, chiefly the United States.
Based on the childhood of co-screenwriter (and Los Angeles-based actor) Óscar Torres, the mid-1980s-set Innocent Voices tells the story of an 11-year-old small-town boy, Chava (Carlos Padilla), whose fate will apparently be determined by one of two monstrosities: The leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and the Salvadoran government’s right-wing army.
As Mandoki and Torres make clear, it’s a no-win situation not only for Chava but for just about everyone else in El Salvador. The boy’s only other option is to escape the country.
‘Happy ending’ irony
When Chava eventually finds his way to the United States, viewers are supposed to feel good about his particular “happy ending.”
In that regard, Mandoki and Torres’ film should remind them of other “let’s not think about those who never made it” dramas like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, and, more recently, Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda.
One key difference: Innocent Voices’ feel-good ending comes, however unintentionally, with a bitter dose of irony. After all, Chava’s country of refuge is the same one that was helping to fuel the very war that had ruined his childhood and forced him out of his home.
Innocent Voices / Voces inocentes (2004)
Director: Luis Mandoki.
Screenplay: Luis Mandoki & Óscar Torres.
Inspired by Torres’ real-life experiences.
Cast: Carlos Padilla. Leonor Varela. Ofelia Medina. Gustavo Muñoz. Daniel Giménez Cacho. José María Yazpik. Jesús Ochoa. Adrian Alonso. Paulina Gaitan.
“Innocent Voices Movie (2004) Review” notes
Gus Van Sant & Quentin Tarantino producer
 Innocent Voices was co-produced by Lawrence Bender, whose credits include Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King; Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-nominated Good Will Hunting; Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican; and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and Kill Bill: Vol. 2.
“Innocent Voices Movie” endnotes
Three Ariel Award wins
Mexico’s submission for the 2005 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, Innocent Voices failed to make the cut.
Luis Mandoki’s war drama did, however, garner ten nominations for the Mexican Academy’s Ariel Awards, topping three categories, including Best Supporting Actress (veteran Ofelia Medina, who plays Chava’s grandmother).
Innocent Voices movie image: Lionsgate.
“Innocent Voices Movie: Boyhood Horrors & Salvadoran Civil War” last updated in September 2021.