Good memoirs don't emanate from the head; they spring directly from the unencumbered heart. Without this primacy of feeling, they're worthless.

So if "Innocent Voices" lacks political objectivity -- it depicts a Salvadoran civil war of gimlet-eyed, American-funded soldiers against genial, guitar-strumming guerrillas -- that's just how one man remembers it. Luis Mandoki's movie is based on the reminiscences of Oscar Orlando Torres, who came of age during El Salvador's 12-year bitter conflict that, by its end in 1992, had left 75,000 dead and sent a million exiles to other parts of the world.

The movie wastes no time pulling you in.

"Why do they want to kill us if we haven't done anything?" asks a young Salvadoran boy called Chava (Carlos Padilla) in voiceover narration as he and a handful of other children are led through the jungle at gunpoint. Their captors are the Salvadoran military, and it looks as though they intend to execute Chava and his friends. At this point, the movie backtracks to show how Chava came to be in this dire position.

Chava, we soon learn, is 11 and living in a country where the army scours the schools looking for children as young as 12 to press into service. If they survive their military tour, they return as prematurely hardened men, their innocence lost.

Chava, who lives in a rural village, has already been dubbed "man of the house" by his mother, Kella (Leonor Varela), ever since his father left for better opportunities in the United States.

One night, Chava is baby-sitting his two younger siblings when the house is caught in a ferocious crossfire. Huddled with his siblings behind a propped-up mattress, Chava distracts his traumatized brother from the bullets tearing through their flimsy shutters by drawing clown mouths on himself and his charges with Kella's lipstick. It's a terrifying and tender evocation of life during wartime.

When she learns about her children's ordeal, Kella decides to work from home making dresses. When her brother Beto (Jose Maria Yazpik) offers to shelter Chava among his fellow rebels, she rejects the idea. "Yes, your side also takes boys," she tells Beto, in one of the movie's few concessions to political balance.

Beto does, however, leave Chava with a radio and instructions to tune regularly to the rebel station, Radio Venceremos. It's the beginning of Chava's enchantment with the guerrilla forces. He's also drawn to the village priest (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), whose sentiments are clearly anti-government.

Mandoki, a Mexican-born filmmaker, is perhaps best known for such sentimental English-language trifles as "Message in a Bottle" and "Angel Eyes." Here, he doesn't completely shake off the Hollywood bug: Every peasant in El Salvador is gorgeous, endearing or adorable; Padilla as Chava is almost distractingly angelic and photogenic, and Varela as his mother is arrestingly beautiful.

It might be facile to observe he works best in his own language, but "Innocent Voices" is powerful evidence of that. The film's evocative spirit fits right in with such childhood-in-wartime classics as John Boorman's "Hope and Glory" and Louis Malle's "Goodbye Children," though it doesn't have the scope and resonance of those works.

When Beto plays a folk song on his guitar -- it's a rather lovely ditty about his people living in cardboard houses -- the camera rises into the night sky in time to catch a sudden burst of incendiary gunfire over the darkened village.

In another scene, when government soldiers beat down doors looking for 12-year-olds and no boys can be found, the filmmaker reveals them all lying quietly on the tin corrugated roofs, quietly counting the stars.

"Innocent Voices" is more than passing poetry, however. It's about Chava's increasingly slippery grip on childhood. His birthday is coming fast, and he's army-bound unless he takes action. But nothing in this movie is inevitable. What's so powerful about Mandoki's film, which he co-scripted with Torres, is the complex, ever-surprising course that Chava takes toward manhood.

Innocent Voices (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for war violence, some sexual content and emotionally traumatic material. In Spanish with subtitles.

Carlos Padilla as Chava, above, caught between the Salvadoran Army and the rebels in "Innocent Voices." Left, Padilla with Leonor Varela and Ana Paulina Caceres.