The third film from Alejandro Landes is a strange and unsettling drama of children thrown into the midst of a war they can’t possibly understand. Largely plotless, this hallucinatory experience is an often spectacular vision of innocence brutally stripped away. Although, it’s sometimes easier to appreciate the fearless filmmaking than the onscreen results.
High in the Andes, a group of eight child-soldiers guard a female prisoner at the behest of a shadowy faction known only as the ‘Organisation’. When their remote hilltop base is ambushed, the ragtag bunch are relocated to the Colombian jungle and the extremity of the environment begins to take its toll.
Monos revels in the confusion it creates. All the political machinations and context of conflict are absent and reduced down to a child’s-eye view; albeit a child who has an automatic weapon thrust into their hand and who has no more information about their situation than a cog in a machine. Occasionally, a diminutive drill sergeant called The Messenger appears to conduct training exercises. These have the same intense, ritualistic overtones of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, but sheds no more light on the motives of their superiors. The atmosphere is cultish and tense, but sometimes playful. Once in the jungle the volatile mix of military training and youthful volatility quickly becomes combustible.
Long before the overt visual homage of a pig’s head mounted on a stick is shown, Monos has the feral stamp of Lord of the Flies all over it. Specifically, a version fuelled by the dreamlike savagery of Fitzcarraldo-era Werner Herzog. It isn’t long before loyalties fracture and shift and various members of the group try to assert dominance, with the central antagonism developing between the pugnacious Bigfoot (Moises Arias) and the sensitive, androgynous Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura). The scenes in the jungle do become a repetitious haze of escape and capture as the adult hostage Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) becomes understandably desperate to escape from captors who are mentally disintegrating before her eyes.
If the fable-like qualities eventually become subsumed by the banalities of war, Monos remains a triumph for cinematographer Jasper Wolf and composer Mica Levi, whose sinuous score departs from her brilliantly atonal work in Under the Skin and Jackie in favour of thunderous percussion that gives way to unexpectedly pastoral gentility. Landes’ direction is fully immersed in the madness with his methods again recalling the guerilla methods of Herzog. A breathless, stunning plunge down a raging river was shot for real without visual trickery, with trained marines at the ready to pluck the flailing young actors from the torrent. It’s a thrilling, terrifying sequence that highlights what a tough, miserable shoot for all involved.
Although undoubtedly impressive and deserving of the big-screen experience, the occasional vagueness and lack of plot direction of Monos are sometimes to its detriment. Nonetheless, this is a film that takes myriad influences and feels very much like its own peculiar beast. Startling, brutal and frustrating in equal measure, when it’s good, as it frequently is, it’s very, very good indeed.
At Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 15 Nov 2019