Taking place in the misty mountains of Colombia, Alejandro Landes third film is a heady blend of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, throwing you into a reality that is both troubling and jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Monos follows a group of young teenage guerrilla soldiers who spend their days running drills and performing exercises atop a remote mountain top amidst the Columbian Civil War. When an American Doctor is placed under their care as a prisoner of war, tensions soon begin to mount amongst the young teens, as they begin to question their place in the world and what roles they play.
What strikes you almost immediately about Monos is its sense of grand, real-world scale. Kicking off the action high in the mountains before thundering down to the jungles below, the landscapes presented and filmed here feel pristine, untouched and unseen; quite simply, they feel like a new world. The swirling clouds that surrounded the mountains and hide the adolescent fighters are striking, while the jungles below feel uncharted, dangerous, yet teeming with life. This is a film that feels incredibly alive even just on a visual level, offering a glimpse into locations that you’re unlikely to have seen on film before.
For a film so full of vibrant life, it is also one very much characterised by volatile, unpredictable danger. Never for a second do you feel at ease with the image of very young boys and girls carrying automatic rifles, conducting military training in their group whilst they await orders and guard their prisoner. Within these moments, they act as children would act. They squabble, bicker, fight and tease. They even poke fun at their prisoner, finding her a figure of fascination, clearly enjoying the fact that they’re children told to watch over this adult. They’re emotional individuals, prone to jealousy, anger, and violence. And in the case of our main character, Rambo (a wide-eyed revelation in Sofia Buenaventura), growing up causes them to question their actions as well their consequences. It can be uncomfortable viewing, seeing such young individuals (and all of them are incredibly defined individuals) being prisoners themselves in the world that they have been thrown into. It’s fascinating, alarming and hard to tear your eyes from.
It is easy to track the influences within Monos, as the works of Conrad, Golding and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now can be felt across the intense 100-odd minute run-time. What’s impressive is how well it stands up to those famous stories with a journey that thrusts the challenges of adolescence in the blender with a dangerous civil war. Landes is very adept at taking certain beats and imagery that you may recognise from such texts and presenting them in a world that feels all its own, one that comes to be defined by its own struggles with identity, both within the young protagonists and the country of itself Columbia, as both are thrown into a war that they don’t fully understand.
Nerve-shredding in its intensity, but utterly captivating, Monos is an exhilarating climb to the top of the Colombian mountains, and a breathless tumble back down to the jungles below. It is a shame that it hasn’t had more love within this awards season, particularly when taking into consideration the staggering effort clearly on display. The child performances are all note-perfect. Jasper Wolf’s cinematography is second to none, its haunting beauty backed up by an ethereal score from the great Mica Levi. It’s a dangerous beauty to behold, one that’ll hold your breath right until the very end, leaving you gasping as the credits begin to roll. Gorgeous, volatile, and profoundly involving.
Dir: Alejandro Landes
Scr: Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Moises Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julian Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillon, Deiby Rueda, Esneider Castro, Paul Cubides, Wilson Salazar, Jorge Roman
Prd: Alejandro Landes, Fernando Epstein, Santiago Zapata, Cristina Landes
DOP: Jasper Wolf
Music: Mica Levi
Run time: 103 mins
Monos is out on DVD and Blu-Ray from February 17th 2020.