3 stars (out of four)
"Innocent Voices" is an unusually beautiful-looking movie about an ugly, painful subject: the effects of war and violence on children. Director Luis Mandoki's movie is set in El Salvador in the 1980s, during that country's long, terrible civil war, and it's based on the experiences of co-writer Oscar Torres, who was one of the many Salvadoran boys faced with conscription into the government army as soon as they turned 12. The main character here, Oscar's surrogate Chava (Carlos Padilla) is 11with a year of grace left before the army takes him.
Screenwriter Torres' recollections, broadly true but sometimes sentimentalized, are transplanted to the fictional Chava, who lives with his abandoned mother Kella (Leonor Varela), in a besieged city, where Chava's and the other kids' natural playfulness is haunted by gunfire and bloodshed.
The actors are fine and the script honest-seeming, but it's not realized in the way we'd expect: with raw realism and a harsh, naturalistic look. The film's Mexican director, Mandoki, and its great Spanish cinematographer, Juan Ruiz Anchia, give this film that shiny, super-real look the big studios favor and that films like this almost always lack. That doesn't diminish the film's power, however, since we're seeing almost everything though the eyes of the children. Mandoki doesn't really pretty up the events, but he and Ruiz Anchia do give the film a scintillating surface that mingles the horrors they show with an almost incongruous childlike excitement.
Films about wartime events as seen by children can be incredibly moving, and "Innocent Voices"which won the Seattle Film Festival's 2005 best picture prizeis quite affecting, even if it doesn't rank with classics like "Open City" or "Forbidden Games." In the best parts of "Innocent Voices," we experience both war's tragedy and its sometimes weird exhilarationwith innocent clarity.
In Spanish, with English subtitles. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and AMC River East. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (for disturbing violence and some language).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun