Winner of the Golden Space Needle Award at SIFF this year, Voices relies on numerous war and coming-of-age movie tropes to tell its earnest story, set during El Salvador's civil war of the 1980s. It's the sort of film you respect more than enjoy; what I respect most about it is director Luis Mandoki's willingness to show us, sometimes graphically, how violence affects children—something few American war movies have dared to do.
Voices is based on the experiences of co-writer Oscar Torres, who fled his country's U.S.-backed military regime in 1984 at the age of 12. Through Torres' alter ego, 11-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla), we get to know the town's chain-smoking priest (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a guerrilla sympathizer; the American soldiers who blithely provide Chava with chewing gum; and Chava's family, including his hardworking, anxious mother (Leonor Varela), his guitar-playing guerrilla uncle (José María Yazpik), and his wise grandmother (Ofelia Medina), who opines: "This damn war will never end with a prayer."
Yet the adults merely frame the main narrative, in which Chava struggles to cope with the violence that engulfs his neighborhood every night. Young actor Padilla is astonishingly consistent in a wide range of familial roles; he takes Chava from protective older brother to hardened guerrilla soldier, then back to whimpering, war-scarred little boy—all without straining believability. During a military raid on his village, Chava's rooftop hideout becomes a perfect perch for stargazing, and Padilla makes his childlike wonder vivid; later, when he stands shivering in the rain, mourning a fallen friend, his grief reveals a striking maturity.
Voices is quite moving in moments, yet I wonder: Will it provoke anything besides sadness in the same art-house viewers who protested U.S. policies 20 years ago? Mandoki, whose Hollywood résumé includes lighter fare like Message in a Bottle, clearly hopes so; he includes several statistics as a sort of epilogue, including the death toll from the 12- year war in El Salvador (75,000) and another, more troubling statistic: The U.N. roughly estimates that 300,000 children (as young as 7) are currently participating in armed conflict around the world. That's the number he hopes you won't forget. (R)