‘Monos’ is Spanish for monkeys. That out of the way, the next thing to report is, critics who say a new talent has emerged in cinematic art are correct, even if it is Alejandro Landes’ third film. But whether he can learn to tell a joined-up story is another matter.
Monos concerns itself exclusively with a group of child-like, immature teenage guerrillas keeping watch on an American woman hostage in two remote locations, a rain swept, muddy mountaintop amid ruins, and a sweltering jungle living in improvised huts. In narrative attack, wealth of locations it is a tour de force. I have yet to see anything like it emerge from Scotland though we have just as dramatic a terrain, and just as many military incidents to tell of. In story, it is compared with Lord of the Flies, but without a satisfactory ending, and Heart of Darkness without the eloquence of dialogue.
The blistering third feature by Colombian-Ecuadorian filmmaker Landes starts with training rituals that are in turn silly, amusing and physically punishing. Its characters are eight badly attired but booted teenage guerrillas serving the orders of a mysterious force known as the Organisation, stationed to wait for further instructions beyond guarding both their prisoner (Julianne Nicholson), and a loaned dairy cow name Shakira. The country isn’t identified, nor why the teenagers are instructed to guard their prisoner; we assume it is for a political ransom.
The adolescent main characters is a roll call of noms de guerre. They are tall, brooding Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), childlike Smurf (Deiby Rueda), hot-tempered Bigfoot (Moises Arias), sexy warrior princess Lady (Karen Quintero), Dog (Paul Cubides), Swede (Laura Castrillon) and Wolf (Julian Giraldo). All but one of the actors, Moisés Arias, are amateurs, first timers, including the milking cow. They are stationed at the cloud-scraping top of the world in the Andes, armed with assault rifles, some food, matches to light a fire, and an inexhaustible supply of bullets none appear to carry with them.
Their base of operations is an inhospitable mountaintop fortress beautifully filmed in rain and mud and black earth by director of photography Jasper Wolf as though it’s an island floating in the clouds. The arrival on horseback of their adult drill sergeant, a minuscule but muscular oddity of a man, amplifies the surreal, fantastical quality of Landes’ vision as framed by Wolf.
For the first thirty minutes, perhaps it is forty-five – it felt too long – my heart sank at the repetition of scenes. The terrain is bleak. The teenagers play games, laugh over silly pranks, argue, wrestling in the mud for status like mating bull seals on a beach, eat and make love, badly. Just as I began to think that this was the sole location, the troop come under fire, attacked by a barrage of bombs that come from nowhere. They grab their prisoner and make for the safety of the jungle below.
The scenes on the mountain top are cut non-linear fashion, we jump from one moment to another without any apparent logic. Once in the jungle, the narrative flow coalesces into a more satisfying, if conventional, chase story.
Intensifying proceedings is Mica Levi’s extremely strange score – I could hardly identify a normal instrument; it might be composed for electronic gadgets – veers from jittery menace to relaxing effects tunes. The music adds to the film’s feverish dream quality; you are aware of it when it appears. I admit that particular descriptor may be overused when referring to a film with ethereal imagery, but somehow the score suits what we see, only there’s not enough of it.
Hallucinatory detours and several heated moments of violence enhance the feeling that the characters are in a perpetual waking nightmare. The biggest ambiguity issues from Landes withholding his political stance, and not offering an explanation of the ‘Organisation’. Is it a military force for good or evil? A political stance is absent.
Child soldiers stuck in a daily routine of monotonous military exercises, and play acting, later placed in scenarios where they’re forced to defend their lives, aren’t likely to be privy to the political machinations underpinning the cause they’re fighting for. As youthful actors they have little technique to show us internal motivation. The film depends heavily on action and plot twists.
There is not a clear-cut explanation for the modern conflict we are witness to, and that’s frustrating. You are left accepting it as an allegorical tale and nothing more.
As life in the jungle with a bolshy prisoner taller and stronger than most of them, gets harder and harder to endure, food scarcer, their brief losing its meaning and its appeal various characters break ranks, their discipline disintegrates, no longer a fighting unit, but separate individuals looking after number one.
What did I make of it? – a visceral experience, visually memorable, but politically too obscure to be fully satisfying. A story of mediocrity given authority. As mentioned earlier, the ending leaves you annoyed, accepting sometimes the bad guys win.
Monos is derivative, Apocalypse Now and a survivalist adventure like The Revenant, and yet with a life of its own. Best thing to do is sit back and enjoy the images and not think to hard till later about what it means. I am not sure if the director knows. At base it is a white-knuckle ride into the heart of darkness.
- Star Rating: Four stars
- Cast: Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson
- Director: Alejandro Lndes
- Writer: Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos
- Cinematographer: Jasper Wolf
- Composer: Mica Levi
- Adult rating: 15
- Duration: 1 hour 42 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?