Near the beginning of Luis Mandoki's harrowing "Innocent Voices," a man with a suitcase hurries out of a shack in a shantytown village. His wife, Kella (Leonor Varela), doesn't bother to bid him goodbye, for he is fleeing to the U.S. in the midst of the civil war that racked El Salvador from 1980 to 1992, leaving her with three small children to support as a seamstress.

The film focuses on eldest son Chava (Carlos Padilla), who at 11 has but a short time to enjoy being a boy, because the government's armed forces, trained and supported by the U.S. military, sweep through towns and villages and seize all 12-year-old males and turn them into soldiers to attack guerrillas of the rebel FMLN. Although "Innocent Voices" is told from Chava's point of view, the story's center is his mother, who with the help of her own steadfast mother, Toya (Ofelia Medina), is trying to hold her family together the best she can in ever-worsening circumstances. She resists throwing her lot in with the FMLN, which her brother Beto (José Maria Yazpik) has joined, and in the meantime hopes she and her loved ones can stay clear of the increasing gunfire as the FMLN advances toward the capital.

In the initial stages of the film, Chava is rather heavily established as a carefree kid, a cut-up with a ready smile just becoming aware of the opposite sex. There's a bit of a contrived, self-conscious quality to these lighter moments, which are swept away soon enough.

Indeed, the picture builds power as it gets more serious — as the government troops randomly brutalize citizens and have absolutely no respect for teachers or the young priest (Daniel Giménez Cacho) who with the women of the community — the men are largely absent, having either fled or joined the FMLN — are striving to provide as normal a life as possible for the children.

Mandoki, who with this film returns to the Spanish-speaking cinema after a string of Hollywood films, has brought a sure sense of the visual and taut construction to "Innocent Voices," based on a true story. It is filled with wrenching images, none more memorable than an overhead shot of boys of the shantytown lying flat on the corrugated tin roofs of their makeshift homes, hiding from a government roundup.


'Innocent Voices'

MPAA rating: R for disturbing violence and some language

Times guidelines: Too intense for children

A Slowhand Cinema Releasing presentation of an Altavista Films and Lawrence Bender production. Director Luis Mandoki. Producers Bender, Mandoki and Alejandro Soberón Kuri. Screenplay by Oscar Orlando Torres, Mandoki; from a story by Torres based on his life. Cinematographer Juan Ruíz Anchía. Editor Aleshka Ferrero. Music André Abujamra. Costumes Gilda Navarro. Production designer Antonio Muño-Hierro. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

At selected theaters.