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Review: Monos

Molly Leeming shares her views on Alejandro Landes's visually stunning film that is stirring up buzz for the Oscar's Best International Feature Film

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Image Credit: Picturehouse Cinemas

Director: Alejandro Landes
Starring: Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julianne Nicholson
Running time : 1hr 45mins
Rating : 15

Monos is a film by Colombian-Ecuadorian director Alejandro Landes which follows a group of teenage guerrillas and their descent into the heart of darkness in the Latin American wilderness. Monos certainly doesn’t lend itself to a comprehensive synopsis. It doesn’t so much have a plot as an inexorable flow, which endeavours to pull the audience into its slipstream. Essentially, reducing the film to a bare-bones plot, it is about a group of cartoonishly named adolescents (with names such as Smurf, Rambo, and Swede), working for an unknown paramilitary group in an unknown part of Latin America, as they guard a prisoner, an American engineer referred to only as ‘Doctora’. ‘Monos’, meaning monkeys in Spanish, is the group’s nom-de-guerre as well as being the title of the film, and is cleverly misleading. When I first heard the title I was put in mind of a group of cheeky ragamuffins, an expectation that was very swiftly quashed as it almost immediately transpired that this was going to be a far darker tale. Forget Famous Five, think Apocalypse Now.

It is undeniably a visually stunning film. Landes captures both the chilly, cloud-shrouded mountains and the sticky, suffocating rainforest with a hypnotic intensity and attention to detail. However, in spite of the landscapes’ ravishing beauty, the audience is never allowed to relax into a Windows screensaver world of towering mountains and majestic rainforests. The sheer uncaring and inhospitable vastness of nature is rendered immersively inescapable. The audience is forced to confront the characters’ near constant physical discomfort, and is not given any release for almost the entirety of the film. One of the most visceral scenes in the film is the one in which the ‘Doctora’ is struggling through the rainforest, attempting to escape her teenage guards, and is faced with the full force of nature at its least idyllic. Buzzing insects swarm and bite her, mud and rain soak her, vines and branches tangle her. Landes is unsparingly vivid in his illustration of nature and this aspect, in my view, is where the film shines the most.

This spectacular and terrifying world however, is only a backdrop to the film’s key focus: the shifting power dynamics amongst the Monos themselves. At the start of the film there is a sense of teenage abandon and experimentation, with new experiences such as sex, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and of course, guns. However, this adolescent excitability rapidly spirals into something deeply dark, violent and troubling. The teenagers, all played well by an impressively capable cast, quickly develop strange and sadistic rituals, with relentlessly escalating cruelty. Monos owes an awful lot to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and by extension Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in its portrayal of a group of individuals travelling deeper into the wilderness, and collectively losing all traces of human civilisation and sanity. Monos forgoes subtlety and goes for a particularly bombastic approach to this familiar theme, with one scene towards the end of the film where the frenzied teenagers, caked head-to-toe in mud, shriek like monkeys before grabbing their weapons and heading on a brutally violent murder spree. While this effectively proved the point, I did feel that Landes was opting for the sledgehammer rather than the surgeon’s knife in terms of symbolism in this scene.

Monos may be rooted in a study of escalating savagery and cruelty, which uncomfortably echoes the violent history of Colombia, (Landes’ parents fled for Ecuador when he was a child in order to escape the violence), but the film retains an otherworldly, surreal tone. The exact details of time, place, and specific organisations are never made clear, leaving the audience feeling adrift and helpless in the face of increasingly bizarre situations and events, which have no bearings in recognizable reality. This nightmarish, unreal feel is aided by Mica Levi’s distinctive score, which utilizes dissonant jolts and ominous drone sounds to create an uneasy disorienting effect.

Monos has been sweeping up praise and accolades, earning dazzling reviews and being Colombia’s official Oscars entry for Best International Feature Film, and this recognition is by no means undeserved. It is brutally effective in carrying across its message: that ‘unaccommodated man’, as Shakespeare would put it, is capable of sinking to savagery which we as humans like to comfortingly tell ourselves is the reserve of animals. However, to me, as efficient as the film is at making this point, it does not say anything new on this theme which has already been explored time and again, in everything from Lord of the Flies to Apocalypse Now. Monos certainly left me in a somewhat dazed state upon leaving the cinema; it is a striking and impressive piece of endurance film. However, I don’t feel that it manages to delve into thematic territory that hasn’t already been explored by other, better films. To be a genuinely great film, it would have needed to deliver something truly new and surprising.

Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York

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