NZIFF 51: Monos, Directed by Alejandro Landes

Equal parts Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now, the visually stunning Alejando Landes film, Monos, portrays the harrowing dysfunction of a teenage guerrilla group charged with protecting a foreign prisoner of war. Oxford Lamoureaux reviews for The 13th Floor.The Monos are a ragtag unit of teenage guerilla soldiers, and in the opening scenes of the film depict the group engaging in blind-folded football and aggressive physical training montages.

We’re introduced to the collective by The Messenger (Wilson Salazar), a mysterious, pint-sized military leader who visits the Monos on horseback and occasionally requests information by radio: Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Lady (Karen Quintero), Smurf (Deiby Rueda), Wolf (Julián Giraldo), Boom-Boom (Sneider Castro), Bigfoot (Moises Arías), and Dog (Paul Cubides).

These titles serve as an immediate separation of the group from their personal sense of humanity and identity, with much of the film’s first third depicting the group as wild, trigger-happy teenagers unaware of the gravity in their circumstance. The cold reality of their world is reflected in their attitude toward American hostage ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson) who observes the group from captivity with a shrewd sense of hopelessness and pity for the children.

Monos is a film that hinges on the success of its imagery, which cinematographer Jasper Wolf delivers with flawless precision. Surrounding the madness of the Monos is an equally terrifying topography; the unforgiving beauty of lush, green jungle contrasts with the monochrome, night-vision terror of gunfire spraying across otherwise-eerily quiet rolling hills. This contrast is just as present in the dynamics of the characters and their behaviour; flicking between drug-infused partying and sexual repression before the grim reality of dawn illuminates their immaturity.

There are momentary stand-outs in the group, though the film makes a point of never giving a character enough room to develop beyond their noms de guerre, leaving almost every character as hopeful and hopeless as when we first met them. This choice is destined to go one of two ways; to feel entirely unsatisfactory in its conclusion, or to provide a fitting subtext of endless despair. While the film almost meets the requirements for the latter, too much of the film is spent wallowing in film-school subtext, requiring viewers to do much of the work in finding depth to the characters when they are displayed in a semi-dreamlike state through development.

However, even in the absence of character analysis, Monos is a breathtaking cinematic vision of teenage confusion, wrapped up in the horror and madness of war. Micah Levi’s score exacerbates the tension already on screen, providing further alienating stimulus alongside the impenetrable jungle cinematography that leaves the film in a constant state of impending doom and destruction.

Filled with a fiery sense of teenage anarchy and hopeless dream, Monos is ambitious in its scope, portraying characters incapable of escaping their surroundings, and forever trapped by a repetitive, cyclic nightmare within a surrealistic green hell.

~Oxford Lamoureaux