On top of a Colombian mountain, a group of soldiers are left in charge of two valuable assets. They are entrusted to take care of these assets as if their lives depend on it. One of the soldiers will indeed take their own life; such is their code of honour around the importance of these assets.
Just reading the above, Monos will sound like a bleak tale of war, and yet director Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) has tried to provide more than that. He’s cultivated a beautiful looking nightmare that disproves the adage ‘it’s going to get worse before it gets any better.’ In Monos, things don’t get better.
For starters, the group of soldiers, with names like Boom Boom and Smurf, are barely out of puberty. Their commanding officers are rarely seen, except for the Messenger; a rock-solid little person who pushes the children – for they are children – physically and mentally. It is he who decides who will lead in his absence, and it is he who will determine who can have sex with whom. The child soldiers, apparently having been long indoctrinated into this military cult, question nothing. As mentioned up top, they have two precious things to look after: Shakira the cow, who provides them with milk, and a hostage known only as Doctora, played by Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County).
It’s never made clear why Doctora is being held captive. When asked to record a message for presumably the government overseas, Doctora talks of Japan and birth control before her poor pronunciation of Spanish is drowned out by laughter from the kids with guns. I’d like to tell you in time that Doctora will win her captors over by becoming the mother figure they’ve never had. I’d like to, but this isn’t that kind of film.
This is a punishing film, made even more brutal because of its young cast. Like Lord of the Flies, the group are babes playing adults. They fire off their weapons with gay abandonment, uncaring or perhaps unknowing about the consequences. Later they’ll play a game of tag that descends into an act of violence that ropes in the Doctora. Landes never flinches from what he wants to show us – whether it be ugly or beautiful.
And what beauty there is. The violence and the sadness almost distract from the all-enveloping landscapes painted across the screen. Landscapes of such beauty that they underline the deeds of our protagonists, point at them and say, ‘Yep, the world is beautiful – but it’s full of terror.’
For all its stunning, dreamlike quality, Monos is let down by a lack of focus. It feels like it wants to say something but isn’t sure what that something is. Is it a diatribe about how governments and war corrupt today’s youth? Is it the media that’s taking a beating, with the children simply being a product of their own desire to be what you see on the big screen? Perhaps the main takeaway is that the first casualty of war is innocence. Who really knows? And while there’s nothing wrong with leaving the film open to interpretation by its audience, Monos never feels like it wants to do even that. The plot, such as it is, moves forward and people sort of change.
Monos can be a complete frustration. You want the film to speak clearly to you, but it just mumbles under its breath. That’s not to say that the film isn’t worth seeing. It absolutely is. Find the biggest screen you can see it on and let the performances and scenery wash over you and carry you away. Just don’t be too surprised if you come out the other end feeling like you’ve missed something on your travels.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ✮✮✮✩✩
‘Monos’ is currently scheduled to open in limited Australian cinemas on March 26.