“Monos”, the latest South American movie to come out of Columbia is an austere, deeply abstract, and equally frustrating film that gives no answers, or barely any clarity for its themes or ideas. All that is left is a bewildering hallow film riff of “The Lord of the Flies”, at once distinctive and beautifully shot, suddenly gets stripped away from any true meaning in its subject matter.
Shot with sweeping landscape cinematography by Jasper Wolf and directed by Colombian newcomer Alejandro Landes follows a group of young militant fighters, who are either training, or preparing for battle? The young soldiers seem to range in age from pre-adolescence/late childhood to late teens. We are introduced to the soldiers that reside high on a Colombian mountainside that consists of fog, dew, rain, and layers of clouds that reside just below them.
We are given no details how these teens are armed, what they are fighting for, who they’re working for, why they are holding an American doctor captive (Julianne Nicholson), and what their main objective is. What we get is a perplexing experience with a numbing style, that only gives muddled observation on the dynamics the soldiers and young comrades have for each other. We never know if these young soldiers are confined against their will, or if they are enslaved, or if they are rebels.
Very much in the vein of Bertrand Bonello’s, far superior “Nocturama” (A film that made my top 10 list in 2017), that also studied young terrorists invading a shopping mall, Bonello also gave no real answers or clarity in their motivations, yet Bonello delivered enough substance around the edges and meat on the bone in preventing it from feeling too evasive.
These young soldiers are all given names that are clearly nick names like Lobo (Julian Giraldo), Leidi (Karen Quintero), Boom Boom (Sneider Castro), and Rambo (Sofia Beunaventura), and they are only referred to as the “Organization”, and they only taker orders from a midget colonel named Mensajero (Wilson Salazar), or an unseen messenger that gives orders through an interceptor. Mansajero arrives earlier film, giving orders, and tormenting the young soldiers into shape with brutal exercises that is clearly influenced by Claire Denis’s “Beau Travail”. During the course of the film the young band of soldiers are just too young to take orders and are negligent.
Even if it means killing a cow they were supposed to watch over, and only use for its milk as if it was something sacred. A direct metaphor that shows their purity being corrupted as their savagery begins to unwind upon the killing of the cow. From there on the film sets up the same ideas from the metaphor, but we aren’t given a too much of an understanding of the politics, nature, or background of what is going on in the outside world.
From there the film sets up a thematic and visual rhythm that is surely a suave looking film, the landscape photography in the film holds the beauty of a Werner Herzog film, with the camera work that echoes Terrence Malick/Emmanuel Lubezki that also holds sudden bursts of kinetic cuts and shots, with a brooding sound design of the young soldiers enduring the chaos that erupts within them.
There are hints of Landos exploring the primitive nature that is repressed, or rather generated within adolescence. There is also some ideas about sexuality, both pan or bi-sexuality, and to an extent identity among the young soldiers, but it all feels removed and bundled together with half-baked and muddled ideas that never see fruition into any real deep interpretations. All dramatic elements and conflicts that appear in “Monos” are all for formal and stylized aesthetic pondering with some possible left-wing posturing about the current attitudes of Columbia’s paramilitary history of resisting Marxist-Lenist subversion.
Landes takes the film into deeper abstractions of primitive nature of the jungle, as the young soldiers begin to conflict with one another, and we’re left with a stolen image of the iconic pigs head on a stick iconography. Yet where “Lord of the Flies” truly examined the savagery of man, and how men conform to savagery in a world that is dominated by primitive nature, Landes just prefers thew viewer already goes into “Monos” already reading the novel and seeing the film of “The Lord of the Flies” and knowing the current or past conflicts of Colombia. What we’re left with is tedious plot action of borrowed ideas that truly never resonate or feel flushed out. Even in the ending, when you are given some depth into the outside world, as one of the soldiers wonders into the home of a welcoming home, we are given a news story about a candy factory that may , or may not give insights about the countries current economy.
Only had Landes gave greater details of South America, or the rise of guerrilla warfare waging on by Colombian paramilitary groups, with possibly other characters or outsiders of Marxist-Leninist guerrilla forces that could reveal what side they are truly working for, the film could have still stayed minimal, yet it would have been far less frustrating, but perhaps more didactic. What we’re left with is a deeply frustrating film that lacks lucidity and dramatic depth, and more uncaring questions with the final product feeling lazy and lethargic on a narrative level.