A group of child soldiers kick a can around in a makeshift game of soccer atop a misty mountain. Blindfolded, arms out, wandering haphazardly around the foggy peak, their little hands nearly tickle the clouds. Suddenly, a messenger arrives on horseback and runs his “monos” through a standard series of military drills. Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Lady (Karen Quintero), Bigfoot (Moises Arias), Boom Boom (Sneider Castro), Wolf (Julian Giraldo), Smurf (Delby Rueda), Dog (Paul Cubides) and the others are assigned various tasks, approved for proposed romantic relationships, and gifted a contribution for their cause – Shakira, and black and white milk cow whom they have sworn to guard and protect, much like their human hostage Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). What begins as a playful experiment in freedom quickly devolves into a horrific descent into madness as inevitable war rears its ugly head and the stars themselves hide from the fury of man’s own damnation.
On an unspecified mountaintop somewhere in Columbia, in an undetermined period of time, director Alejandro Landes brilliantly welcomes the viewer into the void. Gone are the archetypal safety nets of good wholesome family names, exact locations, society’s gender labels, clear political affiliations, or even a rough estimate of the decade in which these characters reside. From the very beginning, the audience is kept off kilter, forced to watch a story unfold in a non-binary world wherein soldiers are humanized not only because they are children, but also because it is never quite clear if they are fighting for the right or the left, or if they are the so-called ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. Like a heightened waking dream, the viewer is dropped smack dab into the middle of the story and told to keep up, thereby highlighting the murkiness of war and the unease with which many innocents are forced to participate.
Embedded in ambiguity, Monos also finds its strength in its unique point of view. Whereas most war dramas would settle for telling the story from the viewpoint of the lone adult onscreen – “Doctora”, as the kids call her, brought to life through a gorgeously grueling performance by Nicholson – Landes opts instead to side with the youngsters, casting aside the captive for a good chunk of the first act. The engineer’s real name is only mentioned briefly via a muffled TV reporter’s voice in the background of a single scene, while the details of her kidnapping are kept entirely mum. Instead, the focus remains on the kids and their alarming representation of man’s return to darkness. The disquieting realization that man is closer to the cave than he is to exaltation.
Monos is both timeless and timely, and the cinéma vérité nature of the film lends to its verisimilitude. Out of 800 young actors, director Landes rounded up about 20, let the kids play together at a remote camp, and based on their interactions and skills shown in improvisation sessions, whittled the cast down to eight. Many scenes are played out in real time, unscripted, or with changes made on the fly to suit the young actors’ distinct personalities. The result is a film that feels as authentic as it is beautiful. The gang’s nighttime dances around bonfires. Their communal river bathing turned game of chicken. The quiet mornings spent lazing in the sun, eating mushrooms grown in cattle excrements, watching their own hands move as they sparkle against pale pink skies and hazy golden hours. Half the time it’s unclear whether these kids are in heaven or hell, but either way, the audience is right there with the characters on their wild journey into war.
Although much of the realism is maintained by the absence of music, when the score does kick in, it marches onto the scene like rolling thunder. Known previously for his work on the tragically underrated Jackie and the undoubtedly influential Under the Skin, composer Mica Levi’s powerful tracks rack up the tension to the point of boiling once the chaos sets in. Like a shot of adrenaline, Levi’s booming call to arms sound like an engine revving up, heightening the already tense state of warfare as the children’s growing affinity for high powered assault rifles intensifies and explodes as terror reigns and violence runs rampant.
Levi’s harrowing score is the perfect companion to Jasper Wolf’s breathtaking cinematography. When combined, the two make the film absolutely mesmerizing. Black silhouettes contrasting a billowy blue horizon. Muddy flesh drenched in gold. Ravenous grins dancing in midnight fire. Commando kisses smudging body paint. Trembling prisoners silently screaming. Explosive, incendiary, terrifying and awe inspiring – Wolf’s work elevates the picture from a tried and true replica to a dreamlike trance state. His addition to the project simply cannot be overstated.
As the camera follows the children from the bliss of the mountaintop, down into the messy entanglements of the jungle below, the landscape itself becomes another character captured by Wolf, acting as a mirror for the current emotional state of everyone onscreen. As the pack begins to splinter, so, too, does the jungle around them grow more chaotic. A cohesive narrative structure is abandoned in favor of fragmented storytelling, quick, frantic snippets replace long tracking shots, colors swirl and blossom in a hectic downpour of confusion and hysteria. Blood and mayhem and branches and body paint blur in a queasy commentary on the dangers of treating children as a means to an end. The price of positioning youth as weapons comes into question more than once, each step forward on this odyssey only leading this army further into purgatory. Beasts of no nation engulfed in the heart of darkness.
Monos is not to be missed. On par with previous standouts like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, while maintaining an identity all its own, Landes’ latest manages to retain great intimacy and specificity within the confines of a jaded war torn world. Like the classic tale The Lord of the Flies, the film explores the notion of young men (and women) severed by circumstance, but never fully takes a superior moral stance for one side or the other. It is up to the audience to determine who the hero is in this tragic fairy tale. Eerily reminiscent of early Herzog and dripping with tension, Monos is less like a movie and more like an experience – one that demands to be seen. This unconventional spin on the typical one sided war drama proves that Alejandro Landes is an important voice in cinema – a bold, experimental rumble in a sea of shy formulaic sighs.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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