Columbia’s nomination for the 92nd Academy Awards Best International Film, Alejandro Landes’ Monos is a mesmerising piece of cinema that is as beautiful as it is brutal. For a film where the plot can be considered wafer-thin, the performances and context heighten it to make it an incredible viewing experience.
A group of child soldiers stationed in the Andes guards an American female prisoner at the command of a group only known as the ‘Organisation’. When their sole adult leader only known as The Messenger, leaves the eight soldier’s (known as Monos) the order and regime of the group quickly descend into utter chaos.
Little is revealed to the audience throughout Monos. We know the bare bones about the group, how ‘The Organisation’ operates, why they have Doctora captive, how did all of these children and teenagers come to be in Monos? An awful lot of questions that could be shared but are not and that is a bold choice from the filmmakers to focus purely on the anarchy of this group and tell it straight the whole way through. As if we are an invisible member of Monos and should already know the context works very well here. It is due to a mixture of the strength of the acting and the awe-inspiring visuals.
Landes was inspired by Lord of the Flies and that is very telling here. However, the film is strong enough to carry its own story and at times Monos is more likeness to Beau Travail and Apocalypse Now by the film’s end than it ever was Lord of the Flies. The chaos that is ensuing to and around this group forces you to continue watching. The shots of the group carrying out their exercise regime under the gaze of ‘The Messenger’ is captivating.
Where we would usually see quick shots to show all of what they are doing, here witness in real-time what world these children are in. Holding the shot as they stationary sprint is jarring and rigid, full of control. When adults are away from them the shots are more roving and fluid, loose even. The children can almost be themselves. The cuts have quicken also. These are children who were never given a chance in life. To be children and their unravelling is enhanced by the direction of Landes. Truly excellent.
The biggest compliment I can give Monos is that it would never be made in the US or UK. Where Landes has decided to merge two stories and make it work. If this was an English language film the filmmakers would deviate the story. Instead focus on Doctora’s journey from the very beginning to the end. Or we would have been given a simpler story regarding how the group has no control once an adult leaves them.
Whereas the film itself has a sparse plot, the film really lives or dies by the acting of its young cast and they deliver excellently. The minimal dialogue throughout the film allows the cast to emote expertly. This is exemplified in an interrogation scene where each actor gets their chance to evoke the smallest of emotions. For a cast so young, there are no weak links with each portraying their own anguish and loss of control like a seasoned veteran. Big Foot’s (Moises Arias) desention into uncontrollable madness was particularly creditworthy.
Other standouts from the Monos group are Rambo and Swede. Sofia Buenaventura plays the role of duck out of water terrifically and is as close to a protagonist from the group as we get. Like the audience, they want no more part of Monos once Big Foot becomes the squad leader with their attempts to escape increasing in intensity as they become more desperate. Laura Castrillón stood out with her performance of Swede, as someone like Rambo who is scared but decides to stick it out.
Castrillón’s glimpses of vulnerability throughout the film are heartbreaking and she is paired well with Julianne Nicholson, who herself helps anchor the film with her performance. The desperation of her character to return home to her family assists with pushing the film along when it looks like it might stutter. As mentioned, in other versions of the film and almost certainly in an American version of Monos. She would have been positioned prominently as the lead and her story would be the focal point of the film. With the spiral of the group running secondary.
Mica Levi has produced another unique and strong one and it would be remiss if this was not commented on. The score helps drive the film when it looks like there is a chance that it might derail. Rightly, Levi has forgone the use of an orchestra for a minimal, haunting percussion-based score that. Much like Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Joker score is integral to the film.
While the film keeps the audience at arm’s length regarding the context of the story. It reigns them back in with some terrific performances and daring visuals. Monos is the Lord of the Flies for the modern age. Brutal, chaotic, but still riveting. A must watch.
Drama, Thriller | Colombia, 2019 | 15 | 17th February 2020 (UK) | DVD, Blu-Ray | Dir. Alejandro Landes | Sofia Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson