Kid’s stuff

Bullets whizz by liberally throughout Voces inocentes, but the casting remains completely off target


Innocent Voices
Luis Mandoki
2004 (Spanish with English subtitles), Lawrence Bender Productions/MUVI/Organización Santo Domingo/A Band Apart/Altavista
120 minutes

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

LATAMROB rating: **

THE HOLLYWOOD sheep loved it, most probably because of its worthy message and, one assumes, because of vague memories of Oliver Stone’s engrossing Salvador.

And Oscar Torres has indeed constructed a powerful, biographically-driven script that exposes the tragedy of child conscription in the developing world: the press material for this film points out that more than 300,000 children serve in armies in over 40 countries.

Voces Inocentes even – if delicately – exposes US involvement in El Salvador’s bitter civil war, which must be considered something of an achievement for any director of a Latin American film these days and puts a feather in Luis Mandoki’s cap.

But that does not absolve it of some pretty serious deficiencies, not least in the casting of Carlos Padilla as Chava, the boy whose mother will do anything to ensure he escapes the draft of 12-year-olds by the government’s armed forces during the 1980s.

Low credibility

Padilla was 10 when he got his first starring role in Voces Inocentes after a juvenile career in Mexican advertisements and soap operas, most probably because of that sweet countenance guaranteed to melt any mother’s heart.

But it is simply impossible to give his character credibility, as the behaviour and mannerisms of the 11-year-old boy he is depicting in the film are in fact those of a seven- or eight-year-old, picking his nose as he skips to school far from the bruised, pre-pubescent and rather brutal wasteland that most boys at this age find themselves having to survive in.

Perhaps we can excuse Chava’s emotional immaturity because he is meant to be very poor and from a country ravaged by civil war. Perhaps we could even excuse the fact that, in the absence of his father, the lad is mothered to death by Leonor Varela (playing, naturally, his mother), and that in such macho Hispanic societies boys do, indeed, get suffocatingly spoiled by the womenfolk.

But if we do so, that leaves us wondering exactly why Salvadorean 12-year-olds were being rounded up as raw recruits in the first place if, like Chava, they were in fact so obviously incapable of being hard and raw enough to do the job of soldiers.

For most 11-year-olds, life is an obstacle course tracing a stony path between bullying and battery. He may have come from a war zone, but this Chava wouldn’t have lasted five minutes down our way: the boy depicted in this film is too angelic, too sickly sweet, too… childish. Our Chava is, indeed, a boy out of a Mexican soap opera playing the role of a boy growing up in a war, and it just doesn’t work. One almost expects him to hold up a tube of toothpaste in the midst of battle and smile at the camera.

That said Leonor Varela, José María Yazpik (Uncle Beto), Daniel Giménez Cacho (the priest) and – of course – Ofelia Medina (Mama Toya) deliver credible performances, and no one can question the underlying moral subtext of this movie, based on the story of Oscar Torres’s own, embattled childhood. The sound track, which includes the haunting voice of the Venezuelan singer and poet Alí Primera, was also an excellent choice.

But at the end of the day, and despite all the awards thrown at this movie, poor casting means it is a lost opportunity.

Eugene Carey is a freelance journalist