There are few things in this world as breathtakingly beautiful as the fog-covered Andes in the morning. If you’re high up enough, you can feel like you’re above the clouds. That’s precisely where Alejandro Landes‘ striking Colombia-set feature Monos begins: we’re up in the mountains. It is morning and a group of ragtag kids, some barely having hit puberty, are being put through the wringer. Theirs is a demanding workout at the hands of an imperious man of short stature. Their names — Pitufo (“Smurf”), Rambo, Leidi (pronounded “Lady”), Perro — suggest childish play but their demeanor and attire suggests something more mature, more dangerous. They are, it turns out, a group of guerrilleros in charge of a random outpost in an abandoned mine where they lord over a woman from the US (Julianne Nicholson) who’s been kidnapped and kept for ransom.
The description puts Monos right at the center of a new wave of cinema coming out of Colombia that hopes to grapple with its recent history of violence. But in keeping his audience squarely focused on the daily lives of these young soldiers (both male and female, played by a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors), Landes keeps the story grounded away from sociopolitical rhetoric. This is a war film that privileges firsthand accounts, asking us to grapple with what it means to be on the frontlines of a war whose purpose, mission, and outcome are quite literally outside of one’s purview. For the likes of Bum Bum (Sneider Castro) and Patagrande (Hannah Montana‘s Moisés Arias) the exhilarating world of being a soldier — the joy of holding a gun, the crazed high of holding someone else’s life in your hands, the comfort of knowing generals from afar are taking care of you — is enough to keep you going. It’s no surprise to find the movie privileging a propulsive narrative beat, with its story barging forward with nary a moment to let you relax.
For the first third of the movie, which is punctuated by Mica Levi’s soaring, thunderous score, you’re witnessing what an adult-free world out in the mountains looks like. There’s aggression, yes, but there’s also plenty of play — even some romance. It’s only once a borrowed cow is accidentally shot that an increasingly harried series of events sends the careful balance of power into disarray. Add in a nighttime bloody raid and you find that Landes’ group of kids are going to stage a modern-day Lord of the Flies for us in the Colombian mountainside. Just as in that William Golding novel, the idyllic world these kids have created for their themselves amidst an ongoing war leads to them to indulge their baser instincts.
Soon, Landes moves us away from the chilly mountaintops and down into the wet jungles of the Amazon. The change in scenery — from vast open blue-tinged spaces up above to an ever-more claustrophobic lush green world down below — allows the movie to further cage in these characters. Some are inclined to help out their hostage (who they call la doctora) while others (like Patagrande, aka BigFoot) are quite eager to hit and torture her while setting themselves up as rulers of a new kind of resistance. These petty power plays put into stark relief the way war stunts and distorts worldviews. Told almost like a parable about the conflict taking place elsewhere, Landes and his Argentine co-writer Alexis Do Santos, have created a bold intervention into the Colombian conflict on screen. With la doctora playing both mother and victim, prisoner and lone adult, it is the kids’ various attempts at growing up and out of the small world they inhabit what makes this drama so intoxicating and beguiling to watch. Even, and especially, when it reminds you of the swift and graceless violence that so pervades it.
As Landes put it in the film’s press notes, Monos is haunted by the bloody legacy of a decades-long civil war whose effects will be felt for generations to come. Painting a portrait of the ravages that a war-torn mindset has on victims and victimizers alike, Monos is unsparing in the violence it depicts. Its visuals, veering from gritty naturalism to heightened stylization, make this story feel epic. “Though this is my generation’s first chance, this is not Colombia’s first peace process and so it feels plagued by ghosts. This historical and cyclical reality inspired the idea to shape the film like a fever dream.” One which is as beautiful as it is terrifying.
Monos premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award.