Monos follows a team of child soldiers fighting a civil war somewhere in Latin America. It’s a deeply tense, unrelenting thing, but still far more joyful than expected. This is director Alejandro Landes’ second feature film, and is Colombia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards.
It’s about as teenaged as a movie about war could possibly be — more visceral in its adolescence than many films whose express purpose is to describe that period of our lives. Certainly, most of us did not spend our adolescent years as soldiers, but when you’re a teenager everything feels like life or death — you’re invincible, but you’re also always one step away from destroying yourself. Teenagers are moody, hormonal, and vicious, all exacerbated by this toxic and high-stress environment. We don't need to know what happened to these children for them to have ended up fighting a war — something traumatic, certainly, different for each of them. And trauma builds on trauma, especially when they move into the jungle, each one passing their fury onto one younger, a cycle that ends with a boy chained and starving. In an effort not to self-destruct, they instead destroy each other.
Monos has drawn comparisons to Apocalypse Now, but I think that does a disservice to both films — Apocalypse Now is entirely linear, a journey towards an inevitable end; Monos moves in fits and starts of pure chaos. It seems reductive to suggest that two war films set in jungles must be similar works. The most obvious comparison, of course, would be to Lord of the Flies — teenagers trapped together and pretending to be adults, often resorting to savagery. There are young women in this battalion, though, which both exacerbates and undermines the masculine clamour for power. Throughout the film, they are thrashing against the constraints put upon them by their absent adult commanders, breaking - but then returning to - the imposed structure, perhaps because it’s the only way they know how to continue.
The cast are largely newcomers, with the exception of Moisés Arias (yes, he of Hannah Montana fame) — who gives an excellent, extremely physical performance — and Julianne Nicholson, who plays an American doctor held hostage by the group. Every actor does a wonderful job, but the standout is Sofia Buenaventura, who excels as Rambo. He's the most reserved of the group, a transgender boy who struggles to handle the violence and mercilessness of his fellow soldiers. Landes makes an interesting choice by having all the members of the group only ever refer to Rambo as "he" — it's certainly a breath of fresh air for a transgender character's identity to be incidental to their place in the film. It is, above all, an ensemble — the soldiers live and love and work together, experiencing the dizzying highs and harrowing lows as a team. We never find out why they are fighting or what they are fighting for — we empathise in spite of, or perhaps because of, our lack of knowledge. They are teenagers in a war, and whether they’re paramilitaries or guerilla soldiers doesn’t concern us.
Mica Levi’s spare, haunting score ties it together — all whistles and rolls of something like distant thunder. The soundscape is punctured by pops of semi-automatic gunfire, set off in joy, pain, or just for fun. The locations are also gorgeous — particularly for the first half, when they’re stationed in a dilapidated bunker high in the mountains, surrounded by mist. The concrete is slowly being reclaimed by the earth, perhaps evidence for the length of the war — maybe no one remembers now how it actually started.