The 1980s civil war in El Salvador is revisited in "Innocent Voices," which finds Mexican helmer Luis Mandoki working on his native turf for the first time since 1987. Failing enthusiastic reviews, Lions Gate release seems destined for second-tier festival play and modest art-house biz.

The 1980s civil war in El Salvador that provided the setting for Oliver Stone’s “Salvador” is revisited in “Innocent Voices,” which finds Mexican helmer Luis Mandoki working on his native turf for the first time since 1987′s Oscar-nominated “Gaby: A True Story.” While the respectable result is a more meaningful film than just about anything Mandoki worked on during his 17 years in Hollywood (“Angel Eyes,” “Message in a Bottle”), pic suffers from an overindulgence of triumph-over-adversity cliches and a meandering narrative that spreads too comfortably over the nearly two-hour running time. Failing enthusiastic reviews, Lions Gate release seems destined for second-tier festival play and modest art-house biz.

Though pic purports to be closely based on the life of its tyro screenwriter, Oscar Torres, it largely lacks the lyricism and depth of feeling that have characterized the most memorable films about children coming of age in war-ravaged environs, particularly John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games.”

Rather, pic’s approach is more obvious, reaching for the audience’s heartstrings in a superficial, isn’t-war-terrible sort of way. Set in a small village close to the front lines, the focus is on 11-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla), who lives with his seamstress mother (Leonor Varela) and sister and who has become the de facto man of the house after being abandoned by his father.

In its early passages, pic sets up a stark contrast between village life by day — during which Chava attends school, flirts with a pretty girl in his class and works a part-time job as a bus-stop announcer — and by night, when Chava and his family must turn mattresses and furniture into makeshift shields to protect themselves from the gunfire.

Gradually, the distinction between day and night blurs, as even Chava’s school proves fair game for the army’s belligerent recruiters, who pluck boys at the age of 12 and begin training them to fight the rebels. Making matters worse is the fact that Chava is himself about to celebrate his birthday.

As Chava’s and other village families try to keep their recruitment-age children from being conscripted, pic plays one of its most compelling bits, in which Chava, tipped off by his rebel uncle (Jose Maria Yazpik) that army recruiters will be descending on his school, informs the entire village, resulting in a case of mass truancy.

While the sequence strikes the right mix of wartime chaos and absurdity, too often “Innocent Voices” veers toward either the bluntly horrific (the murder of one of Chava’s schoolmates by government soldiers) or the overtly cute (Chava’s relationship with village idiot Ancha). Likewise, pic suffers from an episodic structure that, by the fifth or sixth time Chava has narrowly escaped doom, comes to feel repetitive.

Even at its best, “Innocent Voices,” while heartfelt and earnest, speaks more generally than specifically about the conflict in El Salvador. Though pic has its share of harrowing moments, they stem more from the nature of the material itself than the pic’s presentation of it. Mandoki’s direction, albeit competent, lacks vividness or immediacy. Even the camerawork of the often great Juan Ruiz Anchia is surprisingly flat and unadventurous.

Young Padilla, on screen for nearly every scene, impresses as child actors go, but occasionally veers into camera mugging.

Innocent Voices

Mexico

Production

An Altavista Films/Lawrence Bender productions presentation of an Altavista Films & Santo Domingo Films production in association with Muvi Films. (International sales: Lions Gate Intl., Los Angeles.) Produced by Lawrence Bender, Luis Mandoki, Alejandro Soberon. Executive producers, Federico Gonzalez Compean, Monica Lozano, Francisco Gonzalez Compean, Miguel Necoechea, Ana Roth. Co-producers, Alfredo Harp, Sisset Harp, Elba Luis Lugo. Directed by Luis Mandoki. Screenplay, Oscar Torres.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Juan Ruiz Anchia; editor, Aleshka Ferrero; music, Andre Abujamra; music supervisor, Lynn Fainchtein; production designer, Antonio Muñohierro; costume designer, Gilda Navarro; sound (DTS/Dolby Digital), Fernando Camara; sound designer, Martin Hernandez; associate producer/second unit director, Pablo Mandoki. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 16, 2004. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Chava - Carlos Padilla Kella - Leonor Varela Ancha - Gustavo Munoz Uncle Beto - Jose Maria Yazpik Mama Toya - Ofelia Medina Priest - Daniel Gimenez Cacho Bus Driver - Jesus Ochoa

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