“Apocalypse Now” meets “Lord of the Flies”
That’s one way to describe this distinctive, unnerving film from Brazilian director Alejandro Landes. The setup is straightforward: a small band of youthful guerillas holds an American woman and a cow hostage in the high mountains of Colombia.
What Landes does with the story is unusual. There’s no backstory, no history, no politics, no explanation. We don’t know how or why the woman was captured nor the guerillas’ plan for her; we don’t know she’s American, and an engineer, until the end. We don’t know who the guerillas’ enemies are; any fighting is in the black of night or against people with helmets that hide their faces. In “Monos” there’s just the here and now of kids dealing with situations beyond their abilities.
Eight adolescent boys and girls – it’s difficult to call them men and women (at least one is under 15) – with the amusing code names of Wolf, Lady, Dog, Smurf, Swede, Bigfoot, Rambo, and Boom Boom – live and play joyfully, even lovingly, and yet violently. As a group they’re called “Monos” – that is, Monkeys, or “Kids”. They’re charged with keeping the hostage, “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson, “I, Tonya” 2017), secure and the cow healthy. When the cow is accidentally shot and killed in a celebratory revelry, everything goes downhill, literally, into the dense foliage below. The action shifts from a dramatic, mountain-top plateau from which the hostage cannot even contemplate escaping, to the claustrophobic jungle, where the group slowly disintegrates, takes on intimidating, animal-like forms, and is winnowed. Both mountains and jungle are gorgeously filmed by award-winning cinematographer Jasper Wolf.
Discipline is taught to the young people by The Messenger (Wilson Salazar), who comes from The Organization – presumably the larger guerilla organization of which the kids are a part. Abnormally short and heavily muscled, he trains them physically, gives them their orders, and departs. Left to their own devices, and under threat from some undefined outside force, the group decides to follow the most authoritative among them, Bigfoot (played by American Moises Arias, one of the few professional actors in the cast). Bigfoot lacks the charisma and judgment the status requires, and he fatefully decides to separate the cadre from the larger guerilla enterprise. “We are our own organization,” he declares. The group descends into Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
Landes’s script and directing nicely delineate the characteristics of the guerillas: Rambo is sentimental; Smurf is a rat; Lady needs sexual companionship; Bigfoot is ruthless and mercurial. There is just enough cavorting and sexuality to seem plausible. Even Doctora longs for human contact and movement; she dances in her bunker/cell, then kisses the young girl (who declares her dream is to dance on TV) holding an automatic rifle on her. The Anglo is resourceful in trying to escape – which she does, twice – and proves willing to kill to do so. If Doctora is a 21st-century version of Katharine Hepburn, “Monos” makes 1951’s “The African Queen” look like child’s play.
Every scene is a surprise; nothing is predictable. Yet within the context of warfare, the plot and the characters make some kind of sense. Without political valence, without history – that is, without context – is this what any war seems like to the foot soldier?
If the audience identifies with anyone, it’s Doctora. Like her, we are observing young people we don’t understand and who hardly understand themselves. From the first scene, where the kids are playing a kind of soccer game blindfolded and in the dark, everything is emotionally charged and beyond our experience. British composer Mica Levi’s (“Jackie” 2016) penetrating and intrusive score adds to the disquiet.
Even in the final shots, when the helicopter camera pulls away from the jungle to reveal the cityscape of a metropolis, there is no release, no resolution; indeed, the script offers a new, veiled threat of violence. We, the audience, are freed from the hell that’s “down there” as we exit the theater, but it’s not clear how anyone else will fare.
Could “Monos,” which has won several international awards, including Sundance’s the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award, and has been nominated as Colombia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar, be viewed as colonialist? The white American woman is more sympathetic than the native-looking, out-of-control kids. If an Anglo had written and directed the film, what would be the reaction?
“Monos” is more experience than tale. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Director: Alejandro Landes
Starring: Julianne Nicholson, Moises Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Paul Cubides, Sneider Castro, Karen Quintero, Julian Giraldo, Wilson Salazar, Jorge Román, Diana Solomonoff.
Language: Spanish; subtitled in English
Runtime: 102 minutes