Monos

 

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A rare instance of critical acclaim leading audiences to expect too much.

 

Monos

 

A film about child soldiers made by a virtually unknown Colombian-Ecuadorian director hardly sounds like a movie to set the cinema world on fire. Nevertheless, something akin to that has happened with Monos, the third feature to be made by Alejandro Landes. Arriving in London having just won the Best Film award at the London Film Festival, it has been widely acclaimed by British critics as a masterpiece and has been nominated by Colombia as an Oscar contender. Given that praise, one approaches Monos in awe, but to my mind the film suffers from us having hopes that it cannot fulfil: it is a remarkable and striking work and there is much in it to commend, but for all its qualities I don't see it as a masterpiece. 

 

The film is certainly unusual in lacking any specific indication of time or place, albeit that the setting suggests Latin America and could easily be contemporary. It would seem that the aim here is to give it universality as it shows a group of eight youngsters, both male and female teenagers, who are soldiers with the task of looking after a prisoner. The latter (Julianne Nicholson) is an American doctor who has been kidnapped and, inexperienced as they are, these young soldiers have no adult supervisors beyond a single commander known as Messenger (Wilson Salazar) who trains them and appears at intervals.

 

Monos proves to be a film of two parts, the first up in the mountains where the training is taking place and the second in the jungle after an ambush calls for relocation. The teenagers emerge as individuals certainly and, when things go awry, it soon emerges that some of them are content to embrace the military life and the violence that goes with it while others rebel and seek to escape. This means that the film's second half is not so far removed from an action thriller in which escape bids take place and may or may not succeed (earlier Monos has seemed less conventional creating a world all its own which some have likened to a fever dream).

 

The really good things about Monos are unquestionable. The colour photography by Jasper Wolf is magnificent, the strangeness of the film is highlighted by a characteristically extraordinary music score by Mica Levi and the cast - many of them non-professional actors - are splendid. All eight of the soldiers are strikingly individualised and, among these particular players, Moisés Arias stands out as the youngster who becomes the group leader and relishes it. Even if the absence of focus on one leading character does cause the film to lack a strong single line leading to its climax, all these features would, if the film had not been put on a pedestal, allow one to leave the cinema deeply impressed. But, as it is, one goes in having noted comparisons with Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now which suggest that Monos will be on the same level. Mention of Golding's celebrated novel is hardly surprising since Landes borrows directly from it the image of a pig's head on a stick, but the fact is that Lord of the Flies was a dramatic fable supporting a thesis about the evil inherent in human nature, a masterpiece indeed. Similarly, the depth and range of Apocalypse Now had at its core the weight and vision of Joseph Conrad's classic novella Heart of Darkness. For all its qualities, Monos, striking as it is, never hits home unforgettably so as to be the masterpiece proclaimed by many.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Sofía Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillón, Deibi Rueda, Paul Cubides, Sneider Castro, Moisés Arias, Julianne Nicholson, Wilson Salazar, Jorge Román, Valeria Solomonoff.

 

Dir Alejandro Landes, Pro Alejandro Landes, Fernando Epstein, Santiago Zapata and Cristina Landes, Screenplay Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos, from a story by Alejandro Landes, Ph Jasper Wolf, Pro Des Daniela Schneider, Ed Yorgos Mavropsaridis, Ted Guard and  Santiago Otheguy, Music Mica Levi, Costumes Johanna Buendia and Daniela Schneider.

 

Le Pacte/Stela Cine/Caracol Telelvisión/Dago García Producciones/CineColombia/Bord Cadre Films-Picturehouse Entertainment.
102 mins. Colombia/The Netherlands/Argentina/Germany/Denmark/Sweden/Uruguay/Switzerland. 2019. Rel: 25 October 2019. Cert. 15.