Dir. Luis Mandoki. Mexico. 2004. 120mins.

Luis Mandoki, the Mexican film-maker whohas built a comfortable career around middling Hollywood melodramas such as WhenA Man Loves A Woman and Message In A Bottle, returns to his LatinAmerican roots with a powerful true story about a young boy growing up in themidst of El Salvador's brutal 12-year civil war.

Based on the experiences of co-screenwriter Oscar Torres, the finelyobserved drama is told from the point-of-view of 11-year-old Chava (Padilla).Both the boy and the film compare favourably with Walter Salles' CentralStation and its orphaned hero in capturing the wrenching combination ofsurvival skills, street smarts and innocence that shape the worldview of achild in an extreme situation.

Such comparisons along with a strong reception from itsToronto world premiere, critical kudos and a helping hand from producerLawrence Bender should see the film find a spot in the art house world. Astoryline critical of US involvement in the civil war should give the film aboost in Latin America, where opposition to US adventurism is strong -particularly in Mandoki's native Mexico. The film's selection as Mexico's entryfor the Best Foreign Language Oscar can only help its chances.

Unlike most kids, Chava and his male classmates do not look forward totheir next birthday. They know that when a boy turns 12, the national army willtake him away to make him into a soldier. Chava doesn't know this is apre-emptive move to rob the rebels of future recruits while enlisting pliablecannon-fodder for its cause. All he knows is that the abducted boys come backas uniformed killers. As for the teenage girls who are rounded up and placedscreaming into army trucks, he can't for a moment figure what the leeringsoldiers want with them.

Still, boys will be boys, and Chava and his pals are happy to play amidstthe ruins, dodging the army trucks, vexing their siblings and causing theircare-givers more grief than they can possibly imagine.

The film excels in illustrating the divide between young and old, orrather, those made prematurely old by the constant state of danger, despair andhelplessness. The adults in Chava's world are wretched souls, particularly thevillage priest (Cacho) whose brave but futile resistance to the army has brokenhis body and his faith, and Chava's distraught mother (Varela), abandoned byher husband to raise and protect three children in a terrifying landscape ofabduction and nightly firefights.

Only his uncle, a rebel soldier, offers a glimmer of hope but hisinfrequent visits only increase the danger for the family. It's a deftbalancing act, for the film could easily slip into its own depressing chasm;but the children, particularly Padilla's infectiously charming Chava, push thefilm into moments of levity and even joy.

Mandoki and DoP Juan Ruiz Anchia create arresting visual corollaries tothe gulf between the worlds of adults and children; as when the children,alerted to an impending round of abductions, create a daylight game ofhide-and-go-seek. As the press gang soldiers search futilely through theshanty-town for 'conscripts' the camera cranes overhead to reveal one, thentwo, then an entire village of rooftops each with a pair boys hiding in plainsight.

Ultimately the war catches up with Chava. The film is book-ended byscenes of his capture and the moments leading up to what seems an inevitableexecution. That Torres survived to tell the tale is a miracle, and the film isa tribute to his courage and remarkable zest for life.

Prod co: Altavista Fims,Lawrence Bender Prod, Muvi Films, Organizacion Santo Domingo
Int'l sales: Lions Gate Int'l
Exec prods: Federico Gonzalez Compean, MonicaLozano, Francisco Gonzalez Compean, Miguel Necoechea, Ana Roth
Prods: LawrenceBender, Luis Mandoki, Alejandro Soberon Kuri
Oscar Torres, Luis Mandoki
Juan Ruiz Anchia
Prod des:
Antonio Munohierro
Aleshka Ferrero
Andre Abujambra
Main cast:
Leonor Varela, Carlos Padilla, Ofelia Medina, Jose Maria Yazpick, DanielGimenez Cacho