|Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a particular audience.>|
"Innocent Voices" (aka, "Voces inocentes," "Casas de Carton")
[Due to inconsistent ways that accents are rendered in browsers, they have been intentionally omitted.]
At the tender age of 11, a Salvadoran boy whose mind is filled with play, attending school and obeying his parents has the domestic responsibilities of an adult thrust upon him when his father abandons the family for the better pastures of America. At age 12, the boy will be conscripted into the army to be trained to fight the Guerillas who have risen up in a Civil War. His people are the Guerillas.
Chava (Carlos Padilla) watches as the school is temporarily taken over by an army squad for one of their roundup sessions in which boys who have just turned 12 are herded away for training. At night, skirmishes break out with bullets whizzing every which way, syncopated with the occasional grenade or rocket. During these raids, when mom Kella (Leonor Varela) is at work, it's Chava's job to protect his sister and little brother by getting them to the floor for maximum safety. So far, stray bullets have peppered the house but haven't hit anyone in the family.
Kella decides to stop working in the city and sets up her sewing machine to make clothes, which Chava attempts to sell, mostly on consignment with a local shop. They don't move, but he gets a paying job on a bus and manages to bring home some money.
He falls in love with classmate Cristina Maria (Xuna Primus), the new teacher's daughter and the best looking thing in the whole school. Romance blossoms as the pair discovers mutual feelings that lead to a rooftop first kiss. But even this moment is soiled by their witnessing two women on the street being taken forcibly by soldiers and the local priest being rifle whipped when he tries to prevent it.
When Chava at last turns 12, his family puts together a surprise birthday party with 11 candles in the cake, in the vain hope that simple subterfuge will thwart his callup. But bigger things are happening as the village, which lies directly between the warring factions, comes under increased attack. Uncle Beto (Jose Maria Yazpik) sneaks into the village and sets plans for Chava to join his brigade in the mountains, leaving a hand radio for Chava to listen to for rebel broadcasts and to the forbidden protest song, "Casas de Carton" (houses of cardboard).
Clearly, the intention of director-cowriter Luis Mandoki and writer Oscar Torres whose childhood story this is, is to dramatize the price of freedom and the preservation of independent spirit within civil disorder in which life is subject to sudden and random death or life-altering decision-making. The boy's race against time and the desperation of a collapsing regime is passionately explored though, as a story, it doesn't exactly ignite passion.
The primary factor is young Padilla. The filmmakers' choice in casting him for their lead is rewarded by this boy's unstoppable range of expression. Wholly handsome and engaging, he fills the screen with a star's charisma and natural talent. His co-star Leonor Varela is a study in maternal concern and fine beauty, which is fully downplayed as secondary in the gritty portrayal of a peasant mother whose love for her children leads to emotional sacrifice.
The production might have been on the low end of the budgetary scale but you wouldn't know it from the image quality rendered by Spaniard Juan Ruiz Anchia, which is both artful and professional in conveying the depth and texture of the people and the countryside in all their shadowy and sunwashed detail. The soundtrack quality is another matter.
~~ Jules Brenner