Sometimes the stars aren't in alignment. Sometimes the bus doesn't come, our plane never takes off, the woman we love doesn't show up. The point is, it's out of our control and we pay the price. Sometimes that happens to movies too, and I'll tell you why in a minute. "Innocent Voices" is a film about the 'dirty war' in El Salvador, written by Oscar Torres, a childhood survivor of the war, with the film's Mexican director Luis Mandoki. Shot in Mexico last year (too dangerous, even today, to make this film in El Salvador), it follows 11-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla), who lives with his mother (the Chilean international star Leonor Varela), a seamstress, in a small village caught between the U.S.-supported government and the F.M.L.N., the rebel organization. The government forces don't control the town very well - the rebels raid it from time to time - but they use it to kill and rape its citizens, and as they lose soldiers they frequently recruit new ones. In fact they make periodic sweeps to conscript, forcibly, every boy in the town when he reaches the age of twelve.
Chava's uncle Beto is with the rebels, and sneaks back into town to give Chava a radio that can pick up the rebel radio station. Chava, meanwhile, being eleven, has the life of a boy of eleven. He has friends to play with, a girl he likes, a priest to talk to, even time on his hands. But the war intrudes on all of them in ways that slowly strangle every bit of pleasure or normality, until all that's left for Chava, as he approaches the now-dismal age of twelve, is the kind of decision no eleven-year-old should ever have to make: a life-and-death decision that will affect his mother and his younger siblings as much as it will affect his own life.
The film is beautifully acted, and photographed with the verisimilitude of a documentary. If I wanted to be picky I would mention that the title sounds as though it was chosen by Oxfam and the climax is stretched out a bit too long, but I cannot find another flaw in the film. "Innocent Voices" played the world festival circuit this year, winning awards at Berlin, Seattle and elsewhere; it's Mexico's official entry in the 2005 Academy Awards, and I would be pleased to see it win.
But here's where the alignment of the stars comes in. The one newspaper in the United States whose reviews matter to the box office of a foreign film like this is The New York Times. The Times has three critics who review major films - A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis and Stephen Holden - and a group of second-stringers who deal mostly with low-budget independents and vanity projects. (The bizarre exception is the former front-line critic Dave Kehr, who has been relegated to dealing with DVDs.) For me, Scott and Dargis - whether I agree with them or not - are worthwhile critics, whose language is rich, even pungent, and whose comments are always worth reading. Moreover, their words carry box-office weight. Holden, on the other hand, is a mediocre critical mind, a second-rate writer whose words lie like a piece of lox on the page. It's a crapshoot which critic will review your film, and no matter what Scott or Dargis say you'll know that a first-rate mind at least took some time to think about your film.
Unhappily for the prospects of "Innocent Voices," The Times assigned Mr. Holden to review it, and he somehow took it upon himself to look for 'balance' in its treatment of the war. "It is understandable and maybe even necessary that a movie with a humanitarian agenda should bluntly manipulate the emotions," he wrote. "But how far should it go? As an outcry against the forcible conscription of children into armies around the world, "Innocent Voices" is an honorable film. But as a balanced portrait of a tragic civil war, it is simplistic and opaque. A movie like "Hotel Rwanda," which also indulged in sentimental excess to dramatize mass slaughter, at least provided some background and shading to the events it portrayed. "Innocent Voices" provides neither." With friends like Mr. Holden, who needs enemies? Whether the film will recover financially from the review is problematic; I would guess that only an Academy Award can save it now.
I think it's the phrase "a balanced portrait of a tragic civil war" that got to me. I just wasn't aware that it needed balance, at least not in the light of history. Some events really do have only one side.