A review of “Innocent Voices” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for extreme violence and bloodshed

Run Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles

 

 

El Salvador in the 1980s is not a pretty place for adolescent boys forced by occupying forces to join up at the tender age of twelve. This is the destiny of eleven-year old Chava (Carlos Padilla), a happy-go-lucky sprite despite the fact that he’s fearful of celebrating his next birthday.

Chava lives in war-torn Cuscatazingo with his mother and younger siblings, weaned on daily doses of atrocities and fear. Chava is the man of the house, futilely attempting to keep his family safe from strife since his father abruptly abandoned them.

With relentless coercion the army invades Chava’s school and “recruits” friends and classmates as the remaining children watch helplessly. But even the cruelty of civil war can’t halt the inevitable progress of coming-of-age, and Chava falls head-over-heels for sweet Cristina Maria (Xuna Primus) amidst guerilla fighting and political onslaught.

There are lasting images: of gangs of boys lying flat on the village roofs to escape recruitment, of the local priest beaten senseless for speaking out against the military, and of heartbreaking murders of innocent children.  Through it all Chava inexplicably musters a formidable spirit and small semblances of joy.

War is hell, never more so than when children are caught in the crossfire. Based on the real-life story of writer/actor Oscar Torres, “Lives” offers palpable realism. Director Luis Mandoki (“The Edge”) helms with a persistently heavy hand rendering the experience emotionally draining but nonetheless haunting.