More than just Coppola in South America, Monos is a gripping tale of innocence lost with a memorable score from Mica Levi.
Films about child soldiers are never going to be light and breezy. They tend to carry some didactic purpose, often using the exploitation of young people as a means of exploring how far we as human beings can go – and how brutal we can get – if placed in a certain environment, if given the right (or wrong) push. These subjects are typically underprivileged, with the lasting overtone being ‘this could have been you, so who are you to judge?’ Monos, from Colombian-Ecuadorian director Alejandro Landes, does a deft job of not passing judgement on its adolescent commandos. There is savagery, and megalomania eventually equalling that of Colonel Kurtz, but the lingering impression is melancholic, of pity for the whole sorry lot of them – except the adults, those seemingly responsible for this anonymous conflict. This Spanish-language picture is enthralling in the moment, unsettling in the aftermath. Whilst it doesn’t pack all its punches, and at just 105 minutes could use a bit more meat on its bones, Monos conjures a number of indelible images.
On a remote mountaintop, cloaked in a chilling fog, we are met with the Monos: Wolf, Lady, Bigfoot, to name just a few. They are a small group of young soldiers, a regimented squad all going by peculiarly appropriated aliases (there’s also Smurf, Rambo and Boom Boom), overseen by the dwarf Messenger (Wilson Salazar). Their primary function soon becomes clear: the protection of a valuable American hostage, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), whose relationship with the group jumps from docile to despondent. The Monos have little else to do when the Messenger isn’t around, so spend most of their time fighting and frolicking. There’s a sexual undercurrent that springs to the surface every now and then, with an unexpected fluidity and androgynous quality present in this indisriminate pool of young bodies. Issues of gender and sexuality are explored through them being a non-issue, these characters not defined by the same social expectations and prejudices that plague the Western experience. Their innocence is thus ripe to be manipulated.
The film’s initial calmness gives way to a more frenetic energy as the ambiguous Organization, the presumed militia that the Monos serve, moves the troop into the jungle. The situation amongst them has already deteriorated, so these wild, abrasive new surroundings, with their obvious parallels to the winding rivers of Apocalypse Now, do little to ease the paranoia. Bodies of water and the flow of water is a motif, with the climax seeing the camera entirely submerged in an unceasing rapid. Its use throughout, sometimes tranquil, undisturbed, at other times relentless, serves as a juxtaposition that encapsulates how Monos captivates with its unpredictable shifts of tone.
Its effect would not be possible without a stunning soundtrack from Mica Levi, who previously scored Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. That film’s title is an appropriate description for the power of her work here. Synths may not seem like the natural accompaniment for the rural landscapes, but Levi’s buzzy, hummy vibrations prove the perfect complement to a growing sense of depravity. Their ominous impact is only accentuated by Jasper Wolf’s cinematography. The big, background-worthy wide shots in the first half, with the Monos positioned among the clouds, imbue the essence of myth.
Though the unravelling of the collective psyche can be spotted from a mile off, with the soldiers’ circumstances taking a gradual sum of irrevocable turns for the worse, Monos remains a challenging film to the very end. Its final shot acts as a plea to the audience for a show of humanity, with wider implications relating to the displacement of peoples around the globe. It’s a tad gimmicky, temporarily breaking immersion to take the form almost of a charity advert, with the film’s message made manifest through the most overt visual language. If that’s what it takes to evoke compassion, however, Landes doesn’t mind footing the bill. His cast of blossoming performers, headlined by Moisés Arias as Bigfoot, bring the whole thing together with a range of convincing displays of playfulness, lust, cruelty and desperation.
Monos (2019), directed by Alejandro Landes, is playing at this year’s BFI London Film Festival as part of the Official Competition selection. It will be released in UK cinemas on the 25th October, distributed by Picturehouse Entertainment, certificate 15.