Monos begins with a group of teenagers in blindfolds kicking around a soccer ball on a wet, muddy mountain somewhere in Colombia. The sun has just set and the night is creeping in, turning the sky into ultramarine blue. The teens guide themselves by listening to each other, calling out names, and navigating with their hands and feet. They’re playing some sort of game, the rules of which are unclear — who is playing against who is unknown.
In a way, this scene is a perfect summation of the entire film, showing us evocative images of children blindly navigating themselves in a situation without explanation. We are only given vague details: the teenagers are child soldiers tasked to guard a prisoner they call ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson). Who she is, why she is important, and why a group of adolescents are looking after her is not explained.
In an interview, director Alejandro Landes says the war they are fighting is loosely based on the Colombian conflict between guerrillas, narcos, paramilitary, and the state that began in the mid-1960s and ended in 2016. It was a conflict over issues like land ownership and drug trafficking, but this isn’t a strict re-enactment; Landes creates an abstract version of these events, not bogged down by the details.The film instead plunges the audience, along with the juvenile group, deep into the mountains, the jungle and the rivers, confronting us with rituals like taking turns to whip a child, who doesn’t know why this happens until they are greeted with a ‘happy 15th birthday’.
Taking away the context lets Landes shift his focus completely to the immediate sensorial experience of being young, armed, and at the mercy of nature. It makes the story universal and uses the cinematic form to describe the nature of conflict, especially those involving child soldiers. Watching them participate in this war, it may be easy to forget just how young they are until scenes showing them falling in love, playing games, or having a banter between each other reminds us, in unnerving fashion, of the tragedy of their spoiled youth. It makes the audience imagine our own confusion about transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, but with the added disorientation and trauma of war. The rules and their mission are set by a group called ‘The Organisation’ but after an ambush, the band of teen soldiers turn mutinous and they are driven deeper into nature’s unforgiving, unpredictable grasp — testing their bonds and their limits.
The cinematography arrestingly captures their bodies against the vast landscape, making the teens seem smaller than the world around them as they are swallowed up by the thick fog in the mountains and the dense, unruly jungle. It creates a feeling of insignificance, of being consumed by something much bigger than oneself — which is a feeling familiar to anyone who has ever looked up at the stars or experienced a moment of stillness in a jungle, or in the middle of the ocean with no shore in sight — the sense that we are at the mercy of our environment. It is a feeling that is both terrifying and reassuring. This is reinforced by Mica Levi’s assertive score, which turns war and nature into a fluid, abstract soundscape of water, wind, and mud — a sound reminiscent of spinning helicopter blades at times coalesces with the diegetic noise of this chaotic landscape.
Monos is a film that is not explicit in its intentions. It’s thematically and aesthetically reticent, with ideas about freedom and power that are fluid, formless and anarchic. One is never quite sure who really is in charge; power changes hands among the group and, beyond the group, the broader powers of the military and state is intriguingly undefined, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. This is a depiction of war that is without ideology or cause. It observes the chaos of conflict through the senses — what it feels like to be caught in the middle. The evocative score is a discordant orchestra of combat mixed with nature’s reverberating wrath. And the images a baffling, unnerving illustration of the warfare’s disorientating and destructive power. The teenagers are, for the most part, without adult authority, and so they run amok, recklessly shooting their guns at nothing in particular. It may seem like they are free, until nature and war threaten to take that away.
Monos will be playing on Sat 15 June 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Jesue Valle is a design graduate from the University of Technology, Sydney. He created the Instagram account Cineshots and cineshotsblog.com where he writes reviews on new releases and occasionally, some classic films.