Teenage commandos perform military training exercises by day and indulge in youthful hedonism by night, an unconventional family bound together under a shadowy force know only as The Organization. After an ambush drives the squadron into the jungle, both the mission and the intricate bonds between the group begin to disintegrate.
A bleak allegorical study of war as seen through the eyes of children
Heart of Darkness (1899) and Lord of the Flies (1954) by way of the mad folly of Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and the children-are-screwed nihilism of Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco (1981) and Johnny Mad Dog (2008), garnished with the soul-shattering futility-of-war mentality of Idi i smotri (1985), all wrapped up in a pseudo-fairy tale/fantasy aesthetic. Turns out an insane hodgepodge like that results in a completely unique film, quite unlike anything you're ever likely to have seen. Written by Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos, and directed by Landes, Monos (from the Greek "mónos", meaning "alone") is an uncategorisable film that moves from a mountain top which is literally above the cloud-line to a stifling jungle to a raging river to the edge of a city in the midst of war, whilst thematically travelling all the way from a tight-knit group of soldiers who would die for one another to a last-man-standing mentality bordering on insanity. Visually stunning, the plot is a little lacking, and sometimes the allegorical basis is a tad imprecise, but this is hugely ambitious and audacious filmmaking from a director we're going to be hearing a lot about in the coming years.
In an unidentified country at an unidentified point in time, a war is raging between unidentified combatants for never-specified reasons. On a mountaintop, we're introduced to the MONOS unit, a small group of child soldiers with two tasks - to look after a conscripted milk-cow and to guard an American prisoner being held for ransom, referred to as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). By day, they take their duties very seriously, but by night, they act more like the teenagers they are; drinking, eating mushrooms, having sex, goofing around. A tight-knit group, morale is high. That is until an accident has a series of knock-on effects that ultimately sees them abandon their mountain base, heading into the unforgiving jungle far below. Cut off from their chain of command, their discipline starts to break down and soon, they have come into violent conflict with one another.
Although the film is very loosely inspired by the Colombian Conflict, a low-intensity, multi-sided civil war that began in 1964 and is still going on today, one of its most important aspect elements is a lack of political, historical, societal, and militaristic specificity - it could be an allegory for almost any conflict at any point in time. Rather than attempting to elicit pathos by evoking the horrors of a particular conflict, Landes treats the story as a universal allegory, facilitated by the lack of concrete contextualisation. In this sense, it has both a fairy-tale sensibility and a mythological underpinning, with the violence and brutality offset by a poetic tone that speaks to timelessness.
On top of this, the film examines the chaos and absurdity of war through the lens of adolescence; although the members of MONOS can be violent, so too are they teenagers, a duality that informs the entire film. The opening scene, for example, depicts the group playing football, but wearing blindfolds, thus encapsulating both the seriousness with which they regard their training, but also acknowledging that play is still an important part of their lives. Indeed, the film could even be interpreted as an allegory for adolescence itself - a group of teenagers unsure who they are, experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and sexuality, not entirely thrilled about being told what to do by adults, and convinced that they can do a better job of running things.
Monos's most salient aesthetic characteristic is its dream-like quality, walking a very fine line between the gritty realism of a war drama and the hallucinatory feel of a fever-dream (in this, it very much recalls Apocalypse Now). This sense of existing just slightly outside reality is aided in no small part by the discordant and dislocating score by Mica Levi, which is built around whistling and timpani percussion. Also important here is the lush and saturated photography by Jasper Wolf. On the mountain, Wolf often shoots scenes with the characters dwarfed in a small corner of the frame, filling almost the entire screen with vegetation and sky. Such compositions suggest life lived at the edge of the world, existing outside society, existing outside even time. However, once we relocate to the jungle, Wolf goes in the opposite direction, shooting in tight close-ups, frequently handheld, suggesting both claustrophobia and the loss of the near-omniscient control seen earlier in the film.
If I were to criticise anything, it would be the plot, which is very slight, even by allegory standards. Indeed, regarding that allegory, although I certainly admire Landes's steadfast resistance to specificity, sometimes he's almost too successful in rendering the non-specific and universal, leaving you wondering what exactly he is trying to allegorise (even the title can't be locked into a single meaning - apart from the Greek word for "alone" and the name of the unit itself, it's also the Spanish term for "monkey"). And although the theme of child soldiers is a weighty enough issue on its own, it's something with which Landes seems uninterested for its own sake. This can lead to a lack of emotion, which is almost certainly by design, but it makes it difficult to feel empathy for any of the characters, even Doctora.
Nevertheless, this is hugely ambitious cinema with a lot on its mind. Straddling the line between the surreal and the barbaric, realism and fantasy, the seriousness of the adult world and the innocence of childhood, it's a singularly unique viewing experience, as beautiful, lyrical, and abstract in some places as it is ugly, crude, and realistic in others. Both a dire prediction for where an increasingly divided world may be heading and a foundation myth, Monos speaks as much to our future as it does to the legends underpinning our present.
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