An astonishing visual trip, Monos is a queasy journey into the darkness of disorganisation and distrust.
Alejandro Landes, writing and directing, embeds his camera into a group of eight teenagers, Colombian child soldiers in an unnamed insurgent organisation. They are stationed on a remote mountaintop, in an ancient, decaying bunker, leaking and rotting with moss.
They’re guarding a kidnapped American doctor, played by an authentically distraught Julianne Nicholson, and are visited with rarity by a commanding officer of sorts. This messenger arrives to administer brutal training exercises and interrogate them on their inter-personal situations.
The group knows each other by nicknames, from Rambo to Dog and Lady, and, as teenagers will, are awash in hormones and sex.
The opening hour of Monos is set on this mountain, before the action is relocated into a sweaty, humid forest further down the slopes. It’s hard to overstate how stunningly beautiful the cinematography is in this opening location.
From the first shots, of a tense, baffling game of blindfolded sport that eventually collapses into reassuring friendliness, the sense of being in an isolated sky-bound kingdom of clouds is seductive. This is paired with careful details, freezing natural showers in waterfalls, and the all-conquering damp coating surfaces.
It’s a masterful feat, luring audiences into the mindset of these wild teenagers, explaining their feral tendencies and their fatigue.
Of course, all is not well in the group. Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), our pseudo-protagonist, is struggling with the risk of violence that the group’s existence requires, and with jealousy over a “partnering” between Lady (Karen Quintero) and the group’s leiutenant, Wolf (Julian Giraldo).
Meanwhile, muscled, lithe and leathery Bigfoot (Moisés Arias) clearly wants the top spot. If the situation sounds a bit Lord of the Flies, a severed pig’s head will only compound that suspicion late on.
The troop inevitably fractures and frays, with escapees of all sorts enduring horrendous shots at freedom, and random spouts of violence puncturing the fairytale calm that otherwise descends. Teenage japes are mixed in with explosive battles in which the young people seem questionably invested.
Through it all, meanwhile, a cacophonous, moaning score from Mica Levi drives the descent into paranoia and distrust. Levi’s work on Jonathan Glazer Under the Skin was revelatory, and Monos is another superb outing. Suppurating bass and whining noise feel almost diegetic in their power, as certain characters get more and more vulnerable.
The grand pity is that Monos loses its way slightly, in the closing exchanges. Perhaps in search of a more driven plot, or of more obvious symbolism, it moves away from the nightmarish qualities that served it so well, and bows to convention with more straightforward narrative.
Landes should be lauded, though, for what is nonetheless an at times breathtaking film. Monos has a transportive quality that should be celebrated as a jewel of challenging cinema, even if it cannot quite stick the landing.