Programme Notes: Monos

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Spoiler warning: this article reveals key plot developments

Life is fluid and full of contrasts in Monos, the third film from Colombian-Ecuadorian director Alejandro Landes. The film takes place at an undisclosed time, in an unidentified country, where an unnamed military conflict appears to be raging. We open high on a jagged mountaintop that peaks above the cloudline, where a group of teen soldiers are playing football while blindfolded. As a visual metaphor for the film that’s about to unfurl – that of children at play in a war they don’t understand – it’s blunt but effective.

It’s the first of many arresting and incongruous images to be conjured up by Landes and his talented cinematographer, Jasper Wolf, who favours an extreme framing style. Often this guerrilla squad are captured in wide shot, where they appear small and insignificant amid the dramatic highland landscape. At other times, Wolf’s camera gets in close to the actors, capturing their sweaty faces and wild eyes as they run through gruelling training regimes that recall the idiosyncratic workouts from Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999), her transporting of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1924) to a Foreign Legion post [1].

This disparate visual scheme perhaps reflects the contrast in these characters. These are children who are also trained killers; harshly disciplined soldiers who would prefer to goof around and party. They have fearsome codenames like Rambo, Bigfoot, Wolf and Boom Boom, but their baby-faces can’t quite live up to the billing. We learn only snippets about their mission. They are guarding an American hostage, who they call ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson). The reason for her abduction is never explained. They are a squad of a larger military unit called ‘The Organisation’ and they are trained by ‘The Messenger’, a muscular man who’s so short that the smallest of the teen recruits, dubbed Smurf, is still a head taller. Their only other duty beyond guarding their prisoner and running through bizarre callisthenics routines is to take care of a dairy cow called Shakira – as you can probably surmise, a dry, mordant humour runs through Landes’s film.

Monos’ adolescent warrior narrative doesn’t ape the tropes we’ve seen in other child-soldier films like Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008), Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (2012) or Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015). There is no tearful first kill, no friendship with a fellow soldier that preserves their inner humanity, or any of the other familiar character beats expected in this sub-genre. As noted in Jordan Hoffman's Sight & Sound review, Monos’ eschewing of heartstring-tugging over these young soldiers’ lost youth may frustrate some viewers. [2] ‘There have been a lot of films about child soldiers and they tend to trade on pity,’ said the director. ‘I didn’t want that.' [3]

Landes has something more mythical and elemental in mind. He joked that he sees the film as being ‘more of a tattoo than a picture,' [4] although when pressed he has revealed an ambition for Monos to work as a rough allegory for the conflict in his parents’ home nation. ‘There was this very young and fragile dream of hope [in Colombia] and I saw that coming and the film was a desire to make something that flirted with the war genre and had that Buñuel idea of film as a waking dream.' [5]

This combination of war with a dreamlike narrative calls to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), particularly when the film’s action moves suddenly to lower ground and a verdant, sweaty jungle setting. Werner Herzog’s various tales of jungle insanity (Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972); Fitzcarraldo (1982)) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), which depicts the horrors of the Second World War through the eyes of a 14-year-old, also seem like touchstones. To give you an idea of the muscular action filmmaking Landes employs in Monos, the director has also cited John McTiernan's rain-forest set sci-fi actioner Predator (1987), in which an elite military force, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is hunted down by a trophy-hunting extraterrestrial [6]. Far from making the film appear derivative, Landes’s magpie approach merely adds to the feeling that Monos is unfolding like a half-remembered dream.

Monos’ fable-like quality is further enhanced by a typically bewitching score from Mica Livi, the 32-year-old English composer behind the music for Under the Skin (2013) and Jackie (2016). Like Monos’ images, its score is full of extremes, modulating from twinkly, Benjamin Britten-style wind arrangements and sci-fi bleeps to thunderous, bone-rattling drones. Levi had an urge to write the music for Monos as soon as she saw Landes’s rough cut. ‘I felt like there was a lot to relate to,’ she says, revealing it was the messiness of the strange landscape in which it is set that inspired her. ‘The environment is not totally sanitary, there’s lots of deep greens, there’s lots of plastic and leather and bits of metal and a lot of soil and foliage. That all really appealed to me. I could tie that to sound easily.’[7]

As well as the flotsam and jetsam that Levi describes, the fog-covered hilltop location is also peppered with dank concrete bunkers that look long abandoned, suggesting the more scenic parts of the mysterious Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). As well as a catchall metaphor for the madness of war, Monos works as an environmental cautionary tale too. Perhaps Rambo, Bigfoot et al are Extinction Rebellion teens gone feral in a post-apocalyptic world, pushed to violence as the environment around them slowly turns toxic. This is rich, allegorical filmmaking that doesn’t just invite interpretation, it demands it.

 Jamie Dunn Film Editor, The Skinny - October 2019


[1] Maria Delgado, Monos review, Sight & Sound, Nov 2019
[2] Jordan Hoffman’s Monos review, Sight & Sound, 13 Jun 2019
[3] Isabel Stevens, Law of the Jungle, Alejandro Landes interview, Sight & Sound, Nov 2019
[4] Jeremy Jay, Alejandro Landes interview, Screen, 27 Jan 2019
[5] Ibid (4)
[6] Dan Jolin, Director Alejandro Landes on how his film Monos nearly killed him, Time Out, 22 Oct 2019
[7] Isabel Stevens, Settling the Score, Mica Levi interview, Sight & Sound, Nov 2019

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