In an era of blockbuster franchises, there are rare works of art that slip through the cracks and offer us something described as “pure cinema.” Alejandro Landes’ Colombian masterpiece Monos is one such work.
Monos embraces lush cinematography and a pounding electric score to tell a stunning story about Colombian child soldiers. The film offers a combination of landscape and soundscape that encapsulates Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho’s recent comments regarding international cinema: “once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Therefore, it’s surprising and regrettable that the Academy seemed to snub Monos for 2020’s Oscars, especially considering Colombia’s recent success with Embrace of the Serpent.
A Literal Descent Into Hell
Eight child soldiers, under the orders of “The Organization” and referred to by aliases, enjoy a time of relative happiness atop a mountain. The most prominent soldiers are Wolf, their leader (Julian Giraldo), and Bigfoot, his second-in-command (Moisés Arias). The children guard an American hostage known as “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson) as they await occasional instructions from their superior—an unnamed Messenger (Wilson Salazar). A series of increasingly reckless decisions shatter their peaceful isolation and result in their literal descent into the hellish jungles below, as they lose the all-important Doctora and anything resembling stability.
This simplistic narrative allows the film to focus instead on its environment, and provide intimate portraits of each soldier without the weight of a complex plot Everything the children experience scars them, leaving them emotionally stunted, and numb to a life outside of the warzone. Whilst they see very little conflict, their mindsets forever remain in warrior-like states. Some of Monos’ children make a stand against the horrific actions that they commit on behalf of “The Organization.” Others embrace it whole-heartedly, shedding whatever innocence they once had. Both choices result in dramatic consequences that play out in a harsh and unforgiving environment—and what an environment it is.
Director Alejandro Landes and cinematographer Jasper Wolf seem to understand that the eye-catching locations of mountain and jungle provide an opportunity to comment on the horrors and tragedies of war. The jungles are as chaotic as the antagonists’ minds, and the isolation of the mountains force the characters to reflect on who they really are, with minimal distraction. Some characters thrive in these landscapes, others fall victim to them, others are forever scarred by them. The recent Netflix series “Wild District” explores similar territory, depicting a former Colombian guerrilla fighter struggling to adapt to the concrete jungle of Bogota, as opposed to the literal jungle from which he emerges.
By placing its characters on the peripheries of conflict, Monos puts a greater focus on the young soldiers’ internal conflicts, and helps audiences better understand the effects of war on children. Monos creates its own war-within-a-war to effectively criticize and examine the nature of conflict, and it is clear that Landes feels far less interested in storytelling than deeply examining what war can do to a child, and how it can warp their moral compass.
Monos seems like something completely original, but it comes from a tradition of films across the world that view conflict through the eyes of children. These types of films manage to say something far more profound than those which throw us head-first into the battlefield. The Academy Award-nominated Jojo Rabbit is a recent example, showing a brainwashed child diving enthusiastically into the jingoistic Hitlerjugend, unaware of the very real horrors that the women in his life must endure. Less whimsical films like Come and See from Belarus, Die Brücke from Germany, Turtles Can Fly from Iraq, and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation show children equally as aimless as the group in Monos. All of these children simply try to survive a situation they have no control over.
The protagonists of Monos somehow retain a childish sense of wonder and innocence, despite the violence they are prepared to commit for their superiors and the adults that they have in their lives. The Messenger is literally an absent father figure (and an authentic soldier,the actor who plays him is a former guerrilla). Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) is the closest thing the boys have to a mother, yet they treat her as a sort of plaything. Their father figure abandons them, and their mother figure will not hesitate to brutally murder them. Despite the fact they are still so young, there is no one offering them any kind of affection.
Introducing the main characters as likeable and immature makes their fates all the more engaging. Without giving away exactly who lives and who dies, the film makes it very clear that all of them are disposable. Childish desires to marry, have sex, or even just play games are inconsequential. Their lives mean nothing.
One watches Monos with a constant sense of wonder—how did they pull off such an ambitious production? Every scene feels full of peril (especially those shot in the jungle, where guerrillas still roam) and every setpiece seems dangerously irresponsible, as though everyone in front of and behind the camera was risking their lives to bring the story to life. There is no Hollywood ending, no reassurance that anyone will be alive when the credits roll. The environments look as unforgiving as they are beautiful.
By taking this approach, Monos is arguably every bit as immersive as Dunkirk or 1917. When the children are on top of the mountain in splendid isolation, you feel as cut off from the world below as they do. When they are in the jungle, Lena Esquenazi’s sound design becomes suffocating, making it impossible to remove yourself. Mica Levi’s pounding electric score only adds to the total sensory overload. Somehow, by avoiding war, Monos manages to make you feel as though you are in the middle of it.
Monos is an exercise in the power of visuals and sound design over story and sentiment; it sweeps you up in its fully-fleshed reality. This could never work quite as well on television, as a comic, or even as a podcast—it firmly belongs on the big screen, without any arthouse pretensions to weigh it down. Monos takes a bold, left-field approach to the “war movie” genre and manages to add something to it. War is hell, and it is every bit, or even more, as hellish when children get any taste of it.
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Monos—Colombia. Dialog in Spanish and English. Directed by Alejandro Landes. First released January 27, 2019. Running time 1hr 43min. Starring Moises Arias, Wilson Salazar, and Julianne Nicholson.