Monos begins high in the Colombian Andes, where eight children are playing blindfold football. The game is good-natured and joyous but any sense of childhood innocence is a façade and short-lived. Soon, a muscular dwarf named the Messenger (Wilson Salazar) leads the callow eight in drill training in which they handle machine guns.
These child soldiers are holding American doctor hostage Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson) for an unseen rebel group named the “Organisation” and are given a secondary task of looking after a cow called Shakira, presumably named after Colombia’s most famous pop star. When the Messenger leaves “el Doctora” to return to civilisation, the youths play up and in startling ways turn into the cheeky little Monos of the title; the word itself is Spanish for “monkeys” and is what the Messenger calls his rebel regiment.
To recount all the thrilling, unusual twists and turns in Colombian-Ecuadorian writer-director Alejandro Landes’s second fiction feature would be a thankless job requiring a word count and temporal space vastly in excess of what any sentient reader or writer could countenance. It would also suck the life out of subsequent viewings of a rich, fascinating slice of world cinema. Monos is so full of messy, strange life, it has to be seen and has to be felt. It’s narratively simple and lacks a strong, definite political meaning or message but is a sensational, searing work of art just the same.
There is an almost-love story between two of the young commandos, Wolf (Julian Giraldo) and Lady (Karen Quintero), but drunken teen mishaps and automatic weapons can lead to dire consequences. There are power struggles: the adult rebels directing the Monos from afar; internal conflict among the group after pugnacious Bigfoot (Moisés Arias) takes the reins; el Doctora trying repeatedly to evade her captors. Whenever one sees power on screen, a power struggle is never far behind. Just like in real life.
When a distant war finally filters up into the clouds around the Monos camp, the action moves down into the jungle with a supple visual sleight of hand, deep down where cinema and literature so often loses control and then its mind. Apocalypse Now and Lord Of The Flies are obvious reference points, alongside Werner Herzog’s feverish jungle-mania classics Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Yet in Monos’ enigmatic feel and sense of unexplained mystery, James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z feels an apt point of comparison, while the blend of the surreal, nature and violence is redolent of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama.
Landes’ film shows us the determination of the child soldiers but doesn’t tell us anything about the recruitment of the children, their backgrounds, what exactly the “Organisation” is. One is left to assume they are part of Colombia’s long internal conflicts that have existed since the 1960s and still stagger on.
Rather than an obviously political tract, it’s a mood piece – and the mood is sometimes febrile, sometimes completely intoxicated. The Messenger crops up at the jungle camp late on again to investigate why there is dissent in the ranks and El doctora’s attempts become more urgent but the two adults are very much secondary: the film is about the children, the corruption of their innocence, their fears and their desires.
On-screen displays of drinking and scoffing psychedelic mushrooms show characters getting intoxicated, but what will make push viewers towards being punch-drunk is how Monos looks and sounds. Remarkable Cinemascope images from cinematographer Jasper Wolf capture mountain scenes shot at the Chingaza páramo in Cundinamarca at 4,000 metres above sea level. The fog, damp and clouds are never less than oneric and beguiling. The suffocating jungle canopy of the Samaná river canyon in Antioquia dominates the latter half of the film to wondrous effect.
For the score, Mica Levi provides music as harrowing and memorable as the jagged violin motif on Under The Skin, this time resorting to whistling, percussion and thunderous techno synth riffs. The results ensure a fittingly exciting, dangerous soundtrack.
A wild, surprising ride through the mountains and jungles of Colombia, Monos is among 2019’s most distinctive and potent films. Its hallucinatory splendour may recall several greats of classic world cinema, yet it’s still an extraordinary, singular piece of filmmaking. It stands alone, so it’s unlikely Landes would want to produce a sequel or spin-off film. But if he did create a Monos Cinematic Universe, it’d be one MCU everyone could get behind.
Monos is in select cinemas now.