Alejandro Landes, whose muses whispered in his ear the idea of connecting the upheaval in his homeland Columbia to the uncivilised teenage guerrillas, has a lot to say in his third feature Monos, despite a surprisingly plot-less story. Monos’ lack of definitive structure however, doesn’t stop the audience being mesmerised by the craziness inherited in the minds of the child soldiers its story follows, the heavenly landscape of the Colombian jungle and the nerve-wrecking soundtrack.
The story starts off with soon-to-be guerrilla children training with a drill sergeant (Wilson Salazar) who also happens to be the head of this unit. They’re given a task that sounds easy at first −to look after a cow named Shakira and an American hostage (Julianne Nicholson) and make sure that none of them get harmed. They film a video of the hostage, that will later be called “Doctora”, and give her a primitive cave-like place to sleep where they can spy on her. The audience can only guess why she got into the hands of those combatants because she is given no background story that hints toward it. Later, when the sergeant leaves the mob, ‘the Monos’− apparently named after the mythical giant monkey Mono Grande− go back to their so-called normal lives where they play football blindfolded, develop sexual relationships, wait for an order on the radio and perform their strange rituals. When it’s the birthday of a member of the group, he or she must be held and whipped with a belt up the number of their age.
When a brief moment of a dangerously libidinous act (firing semi-automatic guns recklessly) results in a complete disaster, it is clear that the plot will be taking a different turn. The killing of Shakira causes a domino effect: the kids lie to their commander, growing tension among the group shapes itself into a hierarchical system where the most brainwashed kid, Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), gets to rule and most importantly, Doctora sees a chance to run off. As the order descends into chaos, Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), starts to show some spark of humanity left in her. She opens her eyes and comes to a realisation that she’s been living under a fallen kingdom where all soldiers are, in fact, real life criminals and decides to run away before she becomes the next target of the prey. At this point, even the plot holes start to make sense because with so little information about the place and the people of this undiscovered world, we’re left as clueless as the people who run for their lives in the middle of nowhere. Just like the audience, they try to differ the bad from the good but after all, it’s best if they trust no one.
In the cinematographer seat, Jasper Wolf delivers some of the most extraordinary work of the year− perhaps the decade. His camerawork not only does wonders while capturing the sublime livid mountainous tableaux but also while the children from all units play-act at war −with actual weapons. The remarkable photography finds itself a perfect match with Mica Levi’s (Jackie, Under The Skin) main theme four-note whistle, which sounds throughout the film. She manipulates the audience into feeling exhausted as the drums increasingly rumble louder. Even in the sequence in which Bigfoot, Lady (Karen Quintero) and Boom Boom (Sneider Castro) discover magic mushrooms growing in the cow shit and dive deep into the jungle, she manages to make the moment spooky with her unhinged EDM score.
Monos is a wildly beautiful piece by Alejandro Landes, that collaborates with masterminds such as Jasper Wolf and Mica Levi, to remind us that we’re only one step away from a world in which the meaning of civilisation simply doesn’t exist. Its descent into the minds of wild teenagers being swallowed by the living green inferno, leaves you breathless as if you’ve been drowning for a very long time.
by Deren Akin
Deren is an American Culture and Literature student at Ege University. She’s tired of getting sarcastic questions about the “American Culture” part of her studies. Her comfort movies include Little Miss Sunshine, Up! and Love, Rosie. You can find her on Twitter @dereneakin and letterboxd @derenakn
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