Film critic Calum Cooper reviews the winner of the London Film Festival’s top prize – the gripping and provocative Colombian picture Monos.
Monos – ★★★★★
Monos chills you to the core from its sheer intensity. Here is a story where narrative detail is minimum, but thematic substance couldn’t be more plentiful. Visually arresting and hauntingly thought-provoking, its capacity to grip you is as shocking as it is icy cold.
The film is presumably set in Colombia, being a Colombian picture. But, as the location is never explicitly specified, forgive me if this is incorrect. We open on an immense mountaintop, where teenage soldiers are dwelling in ancient caves and hidden passageways. They are fighting a war against unknown foes, for an unknown purpose, and holding a hostage of unknown significance (named ‘Doctora’ and played by Julianne Nicholson). None of these are revealed during the course of the story.
The teenagers are a small cell (called Monos) of a larger militant force called ‘The Organisation’. They are trained by ‘The Messenger’, a man who casts a large muscular shadow, despite being much shorter than the teens. After a few minutes establishing their situation and rigorous training to maintain physical and mental prowess for warfare, the cell is given a new, seemingly mundane task. But one night of error leads to a downward spiral that threatens the very lives of everyone in the cell.
By never revealing what the reasoning or importance of the conflict is, Monos cleverly and powerfully asks us ‘what is the point’? What purpose does war serve other than to glamorise combat and death, especially when, in this case, it is none-the-wiser children who must bear a weight most adults would struggle to carry?
Director Alejandro Landes uses Monos as a case study for the fruitlessness of war. We may not know why this conflict is ensuing or what its importance is, but the teenagers’ reasons for fighting is tragically apparent. War has a romanticised quality to it for the young, naïve mind. It’s a chance to prove yourself as above an adolescent. Perhaps even an opportunity to be seen as a warrior of sorts. These teenagers are all very different – we can glean as much from their initial jovial interactions or serious decision making – but their ambitions are more or less intertwined.
However, the narrative sternly cautions us against such thinking. War is dangerous, horrible, and not for the ill-equipped. These are children trying to prove their bravery and or tenacity by submitting to a merciless world that they cannot even begin to comprehend the enormity of. A cause so vast that they don’t even know what they are really fighting for. By never revealing what the reasoning or importance of the conflict is, Monos cleverly and powerfully asks us ‘what is the point’? What purpose does war serve other than to glamorise combat and death, especially when, in this case, it is none-the-wiser children who must bear a weight most adults would struggle to carry?
The characters may question certain decisions, yet, in contrast to similar films, e.g. War Witch, their innocence has long since been destroyed. In fact, many of them, in particular Moises Arias’ BigFoot, are purely committed to the cause, whatever it is. They think they know the rules of warfare, having evidently been exposed to it for so long. But, as the film proceeds, they find that they are tragically mistaken. By doing this, Monos avoids the clichés found in other child soldier features, and leaves the audience trapped in an atmospheric state of mind that’s as unforgiving as the setting the characters occupy. We feel like we are on the ground fighting with the characters, leaving us constantly on edge.
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Monos further achieves a feeling of dread and anxiety via its technical prowess. Jasper Wolf’s stellar cinematography harkens back to a huge range of past war films, notably Apocalypse Now. When the cell is on the mountain, we feel like we’re in a vast space of nothingness. But his cinematography truly shines later in the film when the cell enters jungle terrain. His close-ups and wide establishing shots further add to the feeling of being trapped. We can almost feel the grime and muck the characters are forced to navigate, his shots are that expressive.
All the while, Mica Levi’s intensely mercurial score accompanies our trepidation. Her music fluctuates from relaxed and almost soothing to horrifying and unforgiving, changing with the environments our characters find themselves in. In a situation as bleak as war, it can only take seconds for things to change, as reflected in the film’s music, cinematography, and direction. And in between all of these are brutally terrific performances from the ensemble cast, all of whom embrace and personify the harrowing effects of warfare on young, inexperienced minds, or worse on young minds deluded into thinking they are prepared for the horrors of what lies ahead.
I unfortunately missed the chance to catch Monos during the London Film Festival, where it went on to win the top prize. Had I seen it, it would’ve surely joined the likes of Marriage Story and Portrait of a Lady on Fire as among the best films I saw. For Monos is more than a mere cautionary tale. It is cinematic lushness if ever I saw it. Hypnotic and unapologetically relentless, Monos is going to linger in your mind long after you leave the cinema, from its metaphorical opening to its frighteningly ambiguous climax.