From Columbian director Alejandro Landes, Monos might wear a dozen cultural references on its increasingly ragged sleeve but still carves a brutally distinct, and entirely unique, identity. It is surely, by that virtue alone, among the very best films of the year to date. A little bit Lord of Flies, a touch more Apocalypse Now and with nods also to all from Women in Love to Apocalypto, the film is at once dreamy and dreadful. It exhilarates and terrifies. There is tenderness in abundance but venom in every heart beat. Sensorily, it is a triumph, whilst, as far as the narrative is concerned, Monos will take a long time to exit the dark depths of the imagination.
Inspired, in part, by the conflict of his homeland, Landes’s script – co-penned with Alexis Dos Santos – mines the human condition of warfare through the eyes and souls of child guerrillas. His cast are a rag-tag collection but beautifully choreographed. Though only one or two originate in acting, with the remainder pulled from the real world, there is not a weak link to be found. Naturalism and authenticity are only heightened the call to disturb further. These are the very youngest of adults, most still teens, and it shows. Their descent from childish ritual to masochistic revelry is compelling and Landes does well to fully engage with the disparate nature of such juxtaposing degrees of immaturity. They are servants to the wider machine but monsters their betters never meant to create. ‘The Organisation is our family,’ their handler tells them early on, ‘you are my children. You’re the Monos.’
Of course, this is far more than a tale of child warriors. Landes’ infantile army is evidently representational of Columbia itself, a nation divided, still young and still forming. Monos is a code name drawn from the legendary Mono Grande, a South American monkey said to eclipse all other primates in size. Within the group, the children are known, meanwhile, by an array of nom de guerre titles touching base across an ironically Western field of inspiration. Sofia Buenaventura is cast with intriguing gender fluidity as Rambo, whilst Deiby Reuda plays Smurf and Laura Castrillón is Swede. Landes opens to find them united, atop a mountain, by a game of blind football. By the end, they are all but divided in the murk of a much denser jungle.
Not content simply to be fascinating theatre of the mind, Monos too excels as a gloriously cinematic achievement. Landes captures his environment with an intense eye of wonderment, enhancing his tale with well crafted visual metaphors and adroitly deployed pathetic fallacy. Stand out instances include a sublime capture reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer and any scene in which a bluish fog unfurls before the action. It’s marvellous work by Jasper Wolf and in good company with Mica Levi’s unsettling, albeit curiously alluring, score. It would be fair to name Landes a stranger to non-diegetic instrumentation, never having allowed such into his work prior to this, but here Levi’s percussive use of timpani and glass bottles could not be better placed to enhance the wider whole.
There is so much more that one could say of Monos that it is hard to think that any truncated review you possibly do the experience justice. It is, simply put, an extraordinary piece of absolute cinema. No wonder it comes so heartily rewarded from the Berlin and London film festivals. Alongside themes of violence and rebellion, sexuality is a distressingly comfortable bedfellow, with Landes pairing gunfire with consummation on more than one occasion. To boot, an otherworldly quality pervades. It is in the close up shot of a dying cow, whose eyes drift to total white, and the illusionistic sexual encounter that occurs in a mire of fluid filmmaking.
Death is powerful impetus in this hermetic society. Indeed, perhaps the most haunting shot of the film is that in which the young leads are seen to be stripping apart the cow like vultures to a carcass. Sonorously, the sequence accompanied and overlaid to the heavy breathing of an onlooker. In the distance, a shot is fired and all turn in horror. They’re practically looking into the camera. It will only get worse from here. It’s powerful stuff.