Cinema in its purest form can be seen as the provocative marriage of sound and image, and as such, Alejandro Landes’ Monos is nothing if not cinematic. While gentle on plot, the film is entirely immersive in its atmosphere, drenched in mud, madness, and brutality.
Monos throws you in the deep end with very little exposition regarding the film’s context. All that we know is that the eponymous ‘Monos’ refers to a guerrilla group of children soldiers who are isolated on a mountaintop. Their only connection to their commanding group, the mysterious ‘Organisation’, is a small radio and the ‘Messenger’ who periodically checks in on them and oversees their training. When he leaves, their day-to-day life becomes apparent; ritualistic, violent games, sexual exploration, shrooms and the relentless torment of imprisoned American hostage, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). Their only real responsibility is looking after the prized milk cow, Shakira, entrusted to them by a nameless benefactor. However, things literally go south as they are forced to head down the mountain into hot and claustrophobic jungle territory where madness and mutiny ensue.
The film has drawn many comparisons to other epics depicting the parallel descent into jungle and insanity, namely, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). While it shares many components with these films, Monos unapologetically remains its own entity. Even its pig head-on-a-stake allusion to ‘Lord of the Flies’ is an homage that builds on the film’s already established thematic structure and serves as a turning point rather than cheap mimicry.
It is this kind of symbolic, visual storytelling that writer/director Alejandro Landes and cinematographer Jasper Wolf rely on for much of the film. There are long periods void of dialogue and the loose plot is often secondary in posing the film’s questions of war, mob mentality and the inherent savagery of humanity. Instead, Wolf’s visuals do much of the thematic heavy-lifting; stark, brutal landscapes and children, with their slight, muscular forms, performing atrocious, almost feral acts. Provocative on their own, they turn electric and disturbing when joined with composer Mica Levi’s deranged and original score. Much like her work in Under the Skin (2013), this is not a background score aimed to simply evoke the fitting emotion here and there but is instead piercingly memorable in how it works to create its own kind of dialogue with Wolf’s cinematography.
In a film that prioritizes audio-visual artistry, it is not surprising that the ensemble cast remains distant; individuals with no backstory and little setup. However, the authentic performances of the young cast ensure each character never falls flat or that the group homogenizes into one. Instead, each character is viciously brought to life. Distinct and nuanced, they all subtly shift the dynamic of the group in their highlighting moments. The few adult performances are similarly well-rounded.
A visceral experience, Monos is a film you feel more than watch. The electric, thrumming soundscape, and mesmerizing visuals are the perfect example of why some films still demand to be caught in a cinema.
Wilson Salazar, who plays the Messenger, was an actual soldier of the FARC from 11 to 24. Director Alejandro Landes found him at a reintegration program and hired him initially as a consultant, before deciding to cast him in the film as well.