LFF REVIEW: “You may be watching through your fingers” – ‘Monos’ (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 3.

“A portrait of the legacy which violent acts leave behind.”

A group of adolescent soldiers, dubbed the monos (monkeys), are sequestered on the peak of an ancient mountain miles from Colombian civilization. They are part of a larger paramilitary cause named The Organization, but their paths intersect only briefly with their more experienced comrades. 

For the most part, these kids have been left utterly alone to prepare themselves for combat and watch over their prisoner: an American hostage (Julianne Nicholson), who is known to them only as ‘Doctora’. She’s an asset, and her survival is clearly more valuable to the cause than any of the kids watching over: the monos are so dehumanised that even their names have been taken (they’re known by aliases like Wolf, Rambo and Lady). Their adult handler The Messenger (enigmatically portrayed by Wilson Salazar) imposes fierce discipline on the kids, but for the most part allows them to enforce their own code of law and order. He takes a long absence to return to the fight, during which the kids play, squabble, and experiment with one another. We see that their formative experiences with drugs and sex are heartbreakingly familiar.

When one of their number accidentally kills their cow in a misadventure with a rifle, and another dies by suicide, a struggle ensues in which one of the group attempts to fill the power vacuum.  The kids are forced to descend to the jungle with the doctor at gunpoint and The Messenger returns to try to enforce order, but it’s too late – any semblance of stability has not just decayed, but vanished. Director Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) drives home the brutality of this setting with a haunting overhead shot of one of the deceased soldier’s belongings being claimed, one by one, by his surviving friends. As an adult voice on their radio encourages them to soldier on, there’s eventually nothing left to take: the boy has been erased.

Landes contrasts the barbarism of this world with stunning photography of remote Colombia. The monos‘ mountain top training camp, high above the clouds, often recalls the iconic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. There were more than a few gasps in my screening in awe of some of the shots captured here. Cinematographer Jasper Wolf has expertly created a world which seems to exist not just outside of civilization, but outside of time and language, in which violence seems inevitable. Mica Levi’s dissonant electronic score is used sparingly to ratchet up the existing tension, but the dominant soundscape of the film is that of the natural world: rainstorms, howling wind, insects and rolling thunder. Few films convey the lonely terror of the wilderness so well, and it’s easy to imagine this as a place where power is the only natural law.

As chaos unfolds and the monos find a new leader in the fanatical Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), their restless and violent energy fails to find a safe outlet and further tragedy befalls them. An obvious reference point for this descent into lawlessness is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but the film also draws inspiration from the esoteric and brutal physical rituals of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, another story of a stiflingly close military unit. Here, as in Denis’ film, training drills which test the kids’ bodies to their limit are used to exert physical and mental control. The sight of a Latin American jungle, utterly indifferent to the fate of its human inhabitants will also be familiar from the early work of Werner Herzog. Some of the scenes of physical danger captured here seem just as perilously staged as anything in Aguirre, the Wrath of God – it feels way too real.

Monos is not an easy watch, and the scenes of human suffering have been so convincingly rendered that you may be watching through your fingers. But it’s utterly compelling as a portrait of the legacy which violent acts leave behind, and how fragile the divide between civilization and chaos can be. There’s a specificity to Landes’ depiction of Colombia’s decades-long civil war, but the themes of Monos are uncomfortably universal.

Dir: Alejandro Landes

Prod: Alejandro Landes, Fernando Epstein, Santiago Zapata, Cristina Landes

Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Wilson Salazar

Release Date: 25 October 2019 (UK)