October 17th, 2005
Having produced all of Quentin Tarantino’s films has given Lawrence Bender some cachet in the industry which allows him to get more difficult movies made. Thankfully, he cashed in some of that prestige to get Luis Mandoki’s “Innocent Voices” into production. A stark and brutal look at the El Salvador Civil War from a child’s point of view, the film is a powerful reminder of how war should never be an option in the resolution of a conflict, even as a last resort, and stands as one of the best films of the year.
Mandoki is one of those directors whose name you don’t remember, even though you’ve probably seen several of his movies. He first came to the attention of savvy cinemagoers with his Oscar-nominated 1987 film “Gaby,” not that anyone actually saw the film when it played in theatres (it grossed a paltry $125,000). He then went on to make a succession of movies which could politely be called pap at best: 1990’s “White Palace,” a romantic drama featuring Susan Sarandon and James Spader as a pair of mismatched lovers that was about a sexy as a colonoscopy, 1993’s “Born Yesterday” remake, which mistakenly thought Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson and John Goodman could be any kind of replacement for Judy Holliday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford, 1994’s “When a Man Loves a Woman, with Meg Ryan making a desperate grab for an Oscar playing a drunk, 1999’s “Message in a Bottle,” where Kevin Costner wooed Robin Wright Penn while audiences went into insulin shock, 2001’s “Angel Eyes,” a laughable J.Lo mystery, and 2002’s “Trapped,” which finally made Charlize Theron realize she needs to start making serious movies if she wished to still have a career. It’s not a very distinguished list of films, and one that would rightfully qualify Mandoki as a “hack” director, making any film just to maintain a career as a director in Hollywood. So whatever made Mandoki decide to return to making Spanish language films after twenty years in America, it was the right thing to happen to him at the right time, as he shows a power and vitality unseen in any of his Hollywood movies. (It wouldn’t be fair to say a renewed energy, as there is nothing in his previous work to show such immediate vigor.) No director has kicked himself in the butt so hard after many years of stagnant filmmaking since Robert Altman made up for everything he made since “Nashville” with “The Player.”
“Innocent Voices” was born from the life of screenwriter Oscar Torres, who has borrowed from his own to tell the story of Chava (Carlos Padilla), an eleven year old boy in El Salvador who is quickly forced to grow up when the El Salvador civil war comes roaring into his small village. With his father fleeing to the United States to avoid conscription into the army of the corrupt national government, Chava must become the man of the house and help his mother (Leonor Varela) raise his younger sister and brother., which becomes harder with each passing day, as the clashes between the Army and the rebels spill out of the hills and right into the heart of his town, often sending the family scurrying for a place to hide as bullets come flying through their shanty home in the middle of the night.
I don’t know how much of “Innocent Voices” is dramatic license, but even if half of what happens in the film has some basis in the truth, you can’t help but feel some kind of latent remorse for what these people went through. I know some neighborhoods in America can see gang turf wars which can and will result in casualties, but even the worst neighborhoods here suffering from urban blight still have access to things like paved roads, running water, electricity, convenience stores and all the basic necessities of life we take for granted. Imagine a world where your home is made of found materials, with only a single layer of plywood keeping you from the elements, no toilet and a huge gap in your roof because you just couldn’t come across enough tin to cover your meager space. Then imagine going to sleep every night knowing you might be awakened at any time by gunfire right outside your window, even a bullet doesn’t get you first. And then imagine being eleven, knowing that you might find yourself conscripted into a war you don’t understand when your next birthday rolls around. That’s a world no child should grow up in.
There are two exceptional performances in “Innocent Voices,” by the young lead Carlos Padilla, making his motion picture debut here, and by Leonor Valera as his long-suffering mother. Padilla has the face of a young angel and the demeanor of an old soul, and one cannot help but pray he gets out of this mess alive. Ms. Valera, who some may recognize from her appearance in “Blade II,” has some personal history with the story, having herself fled the brutal Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet with her family as a child, which likely guided her performance. But the true star of the film is Mandoki and his brilliantly scary battle sequences, which stands alongside “Platoon” and “Salvador” as some of the most brutal and terrifying committed to film in the last twenty years.
You might have a hard time finding “Innocent Voices,” as it is being released by a small independent distributor, BB Entertainment, in minute distribution waves. If you don’t see the film coming to your local arthouse theatre, ask the manager to look into booking it, and if it never does come to your town, keep an eye out for it when it comes out on video, as this is definitely worth seeking out.
Logline: In mid-1980s El Salvador, in the midst of the country's civil war, a young boy must decide between enlisting in the army or join up with guerrillas. In Spanish with English subtitles
Featuring: Gustavo Muñoz, Carlos Padilla, Xuna Primus, Leonor Varela, José María Yazpik
Director: Luis Mandoki
Writers: Luis Mandoki and Oscar Orlando Torres, based on a story by Torres
Distributor: BB Entertainment/Slowhand Releasing
Opening Week Release Pattern: Opened in Boston, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC (60 locations total) on October 14. Adds additional theatres in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City on October 21 and Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Portland OR on November 4
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violence and some language
Running Time: 110 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Flat (1.85:1)
Sound Format: Dolby Digital, DTS, SDDS
My rating: A-