This breathtaking story of teenage soldiers set in a remote area of South America will keep you on the edge of your seat. Alejandro Landes’ third feature Monos is a mesmerising and deeply disturbing movie. It deals with the absurdity of war and the dark side of human nature.
Somewhere high up in the mountains, above the thick layer of clouds is located a camp of teenage commandos named Monos (monkeys). With silly nicknames like Smurf, Wolf, Swede, Big Foot, and Boom-Boom, these kids are as serious as they can be about their duties. They play together, kicking football blindfolded to sharpen their senses. They give each other kicks and punches to harden their bodies. They live in a hostile environment and they’re ready to fight for a cause until they die. ‚The Organisation’ has a very important job for them: to keep an eye on a hostage – an American called ‚Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson).
This group is rarely visited by one of the adult soldiers – the Messenger (Wilson Salazar), who brings in the supplies, instructions, and news about the war raging below them, trains kids into physical shape and leaves them with one more task. A cow named Shakira needs to be milked and taken care of, so people who gave it to the Organisation will not turn their backs on them. After the Messenger leaves, kids party to celebrate their successes. As sometimes kids do, things get a little bit out of hand, alcohol is mixed with mushrooms and a tragedy happens. This tight family bonded together by discipline and brainwashed into obedience, starts slowly decaying and fractures start appearing in its structure.
The main theme of Monos, which has to do with the familiar territory of kids running things in the absence of adults, reminds me clearly of Lord of the Flies. The society this small group is trying to build is based on the world we know, but those rules are as underdeveloped as these teenagers and their social skills and feelings. We don’t know where they come from, who chose them and who formed them into one group. They seem like a random lot. But when put together through training and brainwashing, they are compliant and obedient. The play and party like any other kinds their age do. But predictably, anything they don’t know how to deal with will create chaos. Their behaviour, as seen by the only adult – Doctora – is terrifying. She is first hopeful she can reason with them, then desperate to try to escape, and finally numb and almost broken by the situation. Peer pressure and bullying take over orders, any signs of weakness are ridiculed, common sense is thrown out of the window. The situation gets even worse where the group is relocated to the jungle. Here, the journey to the Heart of Darkness really begins. There’s only one person that seems to have some compassion left in that group. Despite her badass nickname, Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) somehow knows what the group is doing doesn’t feel right.
Comparing it to other movies – like Apocalypse Now or Beau Travail – is rightful, but doesn’t do it a lot of justice. Because Monos stands firmly at its own feet. Mainly thanks to incredible cinematography, exquisite soundtrack, immersive sound design, and extremely good acting. Jasper Wolf shoots incredible panoramic scenes, making it iconic and hard to shake off after the screening. There is enough humanity and insanity shown in faces of the protagonists, beautifully framed and carefully lit depending on the scene. This is a movie that deserves to be watched at the bigest screen possible, with a great sound system. Because the music composed by Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie) is fantastically unnerving and deeply hypnotic. It works a treat with paired with ominous sounds of the jungle and wind whirling through mountain landscapes. All young actors are as convincing as they should be, creating tension with their laugh and unpredictable behaviour, playing gods based on misunderstood images of adults.
Monos deservedly won the Best Film award at the 63rd London Film Festival. It was definitely the best movie in the competition (that was very strong this year) but also one of the outstanding features of the whole 240 movie selection. Rarely I want to watch the film again when it’s finished. This is one of those exceptions.
dir. Alejandro Landes
starring: Julianne Nicholson, Moises Arias, Sofia Buenaventura
Out in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on 25 October 2019.
UK distribution by Picturehouse Entertainment
Book tickets at Monos.film