Director: Alejandro Landes
Screenwriters: Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos, based on a story by Landes.
Runtime: 102 mins.
Australian release date: Postponed.
In the midst of the current coronavirus crisis, with humanity being put to the test, it’s interesting to view a film that shows how a contained society deals with survival and the relationships between its members when the group is cut off from broader civilization, and how the cluster can be affected by greater societal influences. See, for example, how the USA population is stocking up on guns and ammunition right now while the rest of the English-speaking world is buying pasta, rice and toilet paper. Monos, the new film from Colombian director Alejandro Landes, is a study of a squad of eight teenage soldiers, boys and girls, while they guard an American captive, a female engineer presumably being held for ransom. Although The Guardian described the film as “Apocalypse Now on shrooms,” a better description might be “Lord Of The Flies with guns.”
Landes and Dos Santos’s screenplay of Monos introduces us to the group of 15 to 16-year-old soldiers only via the use of their noms de guerre: Wolf, Lady, Dog, Smurf, Swede, Rambo, Boom Boom and Bigfoot. They are cloistered on a cold mountain top with their captive, the ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson) and are only occasionally visited by their commander, the ‘Messenger’ (Wilson Salazar). While he’s there, he puts them through an exhaustive exercise regime and reinforces their indoctrination into ‘The Organisation,’ making sure that all decisions go through him. (Incidentally, Salazar is amazingly charismatic - a short-statured, well-built man, he was himself a child soldier with the FARC for a dozen or so years, so he brings a real cloak of authenticity with him.) On one visit, he brings a dairy cow with him, leaving orders that it must be protected or the Organisation will lose the trust of their rural supporters but, in a wild shooting spree one night, the animal is inadvertently killed. Recognising that they’ve crossed a crucial line, the youngsters plot a course of action that causes them to leave the mountain and head for the jungle, taking the Doctora with them. This radically alters the structure of the group, one that leads to changing alliances, broken bonds and, ultimately, bloody chaos.
Although ‘monos’ means ‘monkeys’ in Spanish, Landes says the title isn’t to do with that meaning, nor does it play on the gorillas/guerrillas bad English pun. It has more to do with the root ‘mono’, as in one, single, alone. The director explains that Monos is, “Much more than an exploration of child soldiers, this film speaks to adolescence because it’s then that we start fighting to understand who we are and who we want to become... It’s a stage in life in which we are caught between wanting company and, just as desperately, wanting to be alone.” The young cast members, who are mainly amateur actors, illustrate this conflicting desire well; like teenagers anywhere, if their characters are not together, they’re huffing off somewhere to be on their own. Their performances are almost as astounding as the locations - the mountain scenes were filmed at over 4,000 metres in the Chingaza National Park in the easternmost part of Colombia while the jungle scenes were shot on the Samaná Norte River in the north of the country. Both are extraordinarily wild and, apparently, have not been recorded on film before because they are so difficult to access, especially with a film crew, a fact that is easy to believe when you see them yourself. There are numerous times when you can’t help but gasp, “How did they film that?”, especially a scene in which three of the young guerrillas are swept down a raging river. It’s even more astounding when you learn that no stuntmen were involved - the kids did it themselves.
The script has its flaws and loses focus at times, especially when the group splits up, but Landes says it is an allegory for his country’s current uncertain position. He explains that, “In Monos, youth serves as a metaphor for Colombia as a nation; it's a young country, still searching for its identity, and the dream of peace is fragile, tentative and recurring… There has been a seemingly endless civil war in Colombia, a war with many fronts: paramilitaries, guerrillas, Narcos, the government, foreign actors and everything seems to be coming to a head. The fragile possibility of peace is in the air, and it's been a long time coming. Monos explores this moment through the prism of the war movie. Though this is my generation’s first chance, this is not Colombia’s first peace process and so it feels plagued by ghosts. These ghosts inspired me to shape the film like a fever dream.” His movie ends very abruptly with a question, as though Landes is asking his countrymen, “Where to from here?” As a military helicopter hovers over Medellin with one of the captured ‘Monos’ on board, a soldier is overheard radioing his superiors, repeatedly saying, “Requesting instructions, requesting instructions.” The answer, like the chopper, seems to be up in the air.