Monos by Alejandro Landes (Porfirio), set among volatile, trainee teenage guerillas in Latin America, is quite simply one of this year’s best and most disturbing films.
Children of the Revolutionby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Monos is one of the best films you’ll see all year. It has been described as ‘Lord of the Flies with guns’ and that nails its emotional impact, though its beautiful cinematography ranging from mountains to jungle is equally stunning visually. Atmosphere is emphasised by a stunning soundtrack by Mica Levi.
The film is set in an unidentified Latin American country. As it starts, we see a group of young teenagers, boys and girls, playing blindfold football on a cold, muddy mountainside. In the confusion, they all shout out their nicknames – Rambo, Bigfoot, Dog, Wolf, Lady, Boom Boom, Smurf, Swede – as yet, we don’t know who is who or why they are there.
But they’re not just kids, they are revolutionaries in training, kept in line by visits from the diminutive, authoritarian Messenger (Wilson Salazar, who was himself a member of the guerilla group FARC in Colombia), who represents the leadership, named here only as ‘the organisation’: the group are Monos.
Chillingly, we discover accidentally that they are in charge of keeping a hostage prisoner, an American woman they call ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson), in an underground cell. She has clearly been there for some time. They are also loaned a cow for its milk (and strength-giving vitamins), but they have no idea how to look after it, and we hope that the hostage doesn’t suffer the same fate when the group parties.
These teenagers are being trained to fight and use guns, yet they are manifestly too immature to be able to comprehend the implacable cruelty of their actions – or to understand the wider implications of what they are doing and why they are there. Left there on their own, rivalries and leadership challenges break out, personalities evolve and individuals become differentiated, and mistakes happen. There’s a heartbreaking scene where Doctora tries to speak to her son over a radio link. It’s a terrifying, volatile situation.
Then halfway through the film the group, with their hostage, is transferred to a jungle base. The setting immediately changes from chilly, inhospitable misty grey mountainside to hot, humid, lush green foliage sparkling with waterfalls and cool, inviting rock pools. Left to their own devices without supervision, the group dynamics become ever more like the boys in Lord of the Flies and their treatment of Doctora becomes even more brutal when they foil one of her escape attempts.
Monos continually has beautifully composed shots one after another, wonderful cinematography that contrasts with the casual cruelty and ignorance shown, interspersed with occasional night vision footage from the group’s viewpoint. There’s briefly one almost surrealistic scene of normality, with television ads that are so incongruous with what the group have experienced that they seem to have come from another planet.
Over the course of the film, the group turns into identifiable individuals. Cracks appear as one member questions their orders and perhaps starts to remember their humanity and what life used to be like. Sometimes the members act like adults, sometimes like teenagers – but the reality is that they are killer kids toting guns who have no life experience to draw on and no concept of the fatal consequences of their actions. They’re metaphorically blindfold.
Monos ends with a thought-provoking, maybe unanswerable question. And if you’ve read this far, it’s still one of the best films you will see this year.
Monos premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, screened in Official Competion at the BFI London Film Festival, where it won Best Film and is released on 25 October 2019 in the UK.