MONOS: Movie recap, 2019 Chicago Film Festival

The betraying landscape of Alejandro Landes’ film “Monos”.

Alejandro Landes’ hallucinating version of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ sheds light on the horror of child soldiers in Colombia.

MONOS, Colombia. Director: Alejandro Landes. Starring: Julianne Nicholson, Wilson Salazar, Moises Arias, Sofia Buenaventura. Language, Spanish, English. Runtime, 102 minutes. A Sundance, Berlin, Cartagena, and New Director-New Films premiere. Release date: September 13, 2019. Rating, A+

Welcome to a world where childhood exists only as a dim memory, and all hopes and ideals have been squashed. Alejandro Landes’ equally austere, lush, and frightening Monos is a fall through the rabbit hole into a place in the world where the conflict of those left behind has generated offshoots of perverse humanities who seek total anarchy, often without a clear explanation. The opening sequence is one of incredible, queasy deception. We get introduced first to the landscape, untouched and glowing in greens and blues, coated in mist and mysteries. Soon we see a group of adolescents enjoying a game of sports while blindfolded. We’re not sure why these kids happen to be in a place where no other people seem to be around, but progressive shots start to reveal a darker scenario.

These aren’t your regular kids, not one over the age of 18; these are human killing machines placed here because of unknown forces, serving a cause as-yet unrevealed to them. In this remote terrain they endure unbelievable tests of endurance, and learn the ways of the gun as they prepare mercilessly for war. Who could the enemy be, we don’t know, but we do know and witness a volatility in these unformed personalities that under normal, quotidian circumstances, would be less inclined to savagery, and more inclined to the usual: sports, movies, video games, dating, and hanging out in malls.

Not in this scenario. Under the iron-grip of Mensajero (Wilson Salazar) they rule the land, unleash their pent-up anger against each other in explosive ways, and pay homage and servilitude to their squad leader Pie Grande (Moises Arias), a wiry teen with a chilling stare and predatory stance. It also happens that amongst the teens is an American woman only refered to as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). What could she be other than their prized hostage, is the first of several exclamation points. How did this unassuming woman who clearly has a family find herself in this mess? We never get to know her, but it doesn’t matter. It’s clear that the stakes are already at a fever pitch with her fleeting first appearance. When she appears again, it is to read them the news, and we get the impression that these kids, who can kill without any remorse, have no education. Her third appearance is even more disturbing as the kids force her to participate in the violent hazing of a teen who has turned 18. This one scene comes forth as vicious as brutal, and were it not because of the cinematography that often softens bestows a sense of nightmarish unreality, this could very well be some horror video from LiveLeak.

It is when a cow consigned to the group dies, followed by one of their own, that the cracks begin to show and the group starts to implode under the pressure. And it’s not a surprise: even with the most rigorous training, who could expect these teens to know how to manage even a simple task, let alone a conflict that goes beyond their very limited intelligence? Landes, with his almost surreal setup, makes his point clear: without the nurture, all these kids can do is live moment to moment. One exchange between one girl and Doctora is almost too painful. The girl confesses she wants to dance inside the television. However, the girl’s flat voice indicates she’s well aware that is not an option for her. All she’s known is the way of bloodshed.

Landes presents a tableau that has all the risk of flying off the rails into unbearable depravity and exploitation, especially in its scenes involving Nicholson as she battles for her life and attempts to keep her sanity. However, in leaving some of the horror to the imagination, and also bringing forth an unlikely hero like the gender non-comforing Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), he still manages to paint a horrifying canvas of innocence perverted at the hands of unseen pupeteers. Monos, at times, is extremely uncomfortable to watch, and keeps us squirming, breathing shallowly, waiting for the moment some form of closure can take place. It doesn’t quite wrap things up, but then again, given the reality of child soldiers in Colombia, would any other kind of ending suffice?

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