Innocent Voices (12A)

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The Independent Culture

One can't imagine the fantasy escape routes employed in Tideland would be available to the children growing up in El Salvador during the civil war of the 1980s. Then, to take their eyes off reality for a second - any deviation from curfew, any word out of turn - could mean being killed.

Based on the actual experiences of writer Oscar Torres, this is a harrowing account of the war, as seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. Chava (Carlos Padilla) lives with his young mother (Leonor Varela) and his siblings in a shanty village in the middle of the war zone. Each night their hut is caught in the crossfire between the army and guerrillas, the children hiding under the bed as their home is ripped apart by bullets; by day, poverty brings its own pressures to a community robbed of its men, who are either dead or fighting.

Chava faces an additional problem: when the boys reach their 12th birthday, they are rounded up at school and forced into the army. The scenes of child conscription are among the film's most disturbing. The real horror, though, is in watching the brutalisation of boys compelled to kill.

The courage and love demonstrated by these women and children lighten a film that otherwise would be bleak beyond words. Varela conveys the mother's tremulous grip on her emotions, while young Padilla dispels inapt sentimentality with a steely presence reminiscent of Christian Bale's debut in Empire of the Sun.