Monos review – hypnotic thriller about teenage guerrillas

Inspired by the upheaval in his native Colombia, Alejandro Landes’s story of teenage guerrillas descending into anarchy is a hypnotic triumph

This second fiction feature from Colombian-Ecuadorian writer-director Alejandro Landes is a dizzying fable of child soldiery that plunges its audience headfirst into an immersive world of war and adolescence. Brilliantly played by a youthful ensemble cast, and accompanied by a breathtaking Mica Levi score, it is alternately sensuous and scary, thrilling and appalling, with a dark heart of horror at its core.

We open on a remote mountaintop, where a ragtag band of teenagers plays blindfolded football. These are the titular Monos (alluding to the Greek word for “alone”) – a guerrilla outfit overseen by a fearsome “Messenger”, who teaches them that “we work for the Organisation; the Organisation is our family!” They have cartoonish noms de guerre (Rambo, Dog, Wolf, Boom Boom) and lead a regimented life amid a landscape of surreal stone structures, as mysterious as the monolith from 2001. Their primary task is guarding “Doctora”, an American prisoner who is apparently being held for ransom. But the kids are more excited by the prospect of a new arrival: a (sacrificial) cow named Shakira, which they are told is on loan from a benefactor and must be milked and cared for or it will explode.

When the Messenger departs, the kids are left to their own devices, which include capoeira fight-dancing, sexual experimentation, mushroom intoxication and the drunken discharging of firearms. Factions jostle for power with feral intensity, brilliantly expressed through the choreographed physicality of a fireside feast in which the strong push the weak aside, hierarchies established through actions rather than words. Later, the group is driven into the jungle, where the dizzying expansiveness of the first act gives way to a growing sense of claustrophobia. There’s also a chilling thread of violent retribution, typified by a visual reference to the pig’s head on a stick from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The Messenger (Wilson Salazar, left) puts the young soldiers through their paces in Monos.
The Messenger (Wilson Salazar, left) puts the young soldiers through their paces in Monos. Photograph: PR

Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God have both been widely cited in critical responses to Monos, while Landes has noted that he and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos watched Elem Klimov’s traumatising child’s-eye view of war, Come and See, while collaborating on the script. Although Monos defies any easy categorisation, I thought I saw echoes of Héctor Babenco’s controversial Brazilian street-kids film Pixote, and felt the tonal reverberations of Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog, the latter hallucinogenically adapted from Emmanuel Dongala’s child-soldiers novel. There’s an element of fairytale too, tapping into a recurrent Brothers Grimm motif of children lost in the woods, searching for themselves in abstract environments.

Monos is inspired by the volatile situation in Colombia (which Landes calls “a ticking time bomb”), but pointedly plays out in unnamed locales, devoid of any geographical reference points. Indeed, the entire film is characterised by a remarkable absence of boundaries, a fluidity of age, gender and geography mirroring the deliberate lack of political or historical specificity. This is a quasi-mythical tale, rooted in brutal reality perhaps, but rendered in a poetic manner that seems timeless and universal.

That air of abstraction is heightened by cinematographer Jasper Wolf’s super-saturated images, which see an earthy idyll turn into a green inferno. Tonally, the film is mercurial, capturing the multiple realities of its young subjects who are both children and soldiers – the distressing, disorienting dichotomy at the centre of its eerie spell. With skill and sensitivity, Landes manages to capture both sides of their fractured world, evoking empathy without resort to pity.

The real genius lies in the casting, which combines seasoned screen veterans with astonishing newcomers. Former Hannah Montana regular Moisés Arias, who provided the quirky comic heart of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s brilliant coming-of-age pic The Kings of Summer, is unrecognisable here as the musclebound Bigfoot, emergent leader of the group. Equally impressive is Sofia Buenaventura, a high-school skateboarder who commands the screen in her first role as the androgynous Rambo, gradually taking centre stage as the group splinter in kaleidoscopic shards.

Through it all runs the pulsing blood of Mica Levi’s spine-tingling score. At the top end of its strange frequencies, we find whistles that echo the handmade bird calls of the teenagers, but which also sounded to me like lonely radio signals or sonar, highlighting the sense of isolation. Underneath, we have a cacophony of timpani and electronica, trembling with the thunderous experience of a kiss, juddering through the adrenalised exhaustion of a workout or rumbling like a volcano waiting to erupt.

Interwoven with the film’s soundscape, Levi’s music is as boldly adventurous as the movie itself – haunting, challenging, affecting, alarming and utterly mesmerising.

Watch a trailer for Monos


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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