Stories of war are often hard to stomach when the reality of it all hits home on the big screen before us. Stories of children at war are particularly awful.

'Innocent Voices' tells the story of a boy who is struggling with innocence, responsibility and fear in a world where age is no protector and revenge knows no moral bounds.

Chava (Padilla) is like any other 11-year-old boy, eager to run wild in the streets, playing with friends, always testing his mother's (Varela) boundaries and falling in love for the first time. But growing up in El Salvador in the mid 1980s, he is acutely aware of things that no child should have knowledge of. He sees violence around every corner and, although not fully aware of what all the fighting is about, knows that he must one day play his part in the scene that is endlessly playing out in front of him. Like every other child in his town he dreads turning 12 - the age a child is considered ready for army training.

'Innocent Voices' depicts a very harrowing time in the history of El Salvador. Troops acting on behalf of the government are fiercely resisting guerrilla fighters and children are being drafted into the fold to train as soldiers, mostly against their will. The rebel group, known as FMLN, (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) is also recruiting for their ideal, with a bloody civil war ensuing.

The film follows the story of one family and their friends and neighbours, all of whom are victims of the carnage in their own ways. Some have children torn from them to become soldiers, others are forced to watch loved ones bleed to death in front of them and some are punished for making their beliefs too well known. It looks at the simple issues of every life, which are complicated by the atrocities taking place on a daily basis - a single mother going out to work by night and coming back to find her children huddled behind a mattress trying to protect themselves against bullets.

The strength of this film lies mainly in the fact that it does not take sides and is not overly political in its portrayal. It presents the hard statistics of war but in a very human way. Based on the true story of screenwriter Oscar Torres' childhood experiences, it is a vivid account of innocence fighting for its moment in a world populated by hatred and revenge, of a child who knows nothing else only war and of a town with its guard always up against violence, where the innocents are always the losers. 

Superb acting, that is heartfelt and believable, complements the simple, yet effective, script. The young Carlos Padilla in particular is compelling in the lead role, with Leonor Varela also playing his struggling and weary mother well.

A film about every conceivable contradiction to the notions of mercy and compassion, 'Innocent Voices' will haunt your memory long after viewing it. For people who think that subtitles are too much work, have a rethink. You will be captivated by this from the outset. Unashamedly graphic where it needs to be but not overpowered by sentimentality, this film is brutally direct in every respect.

'Innocent Voices' grows into the best kind of film - powerful, deeply emotional and all too real.

Linda McGee