Monos (5 stars)

Monos

Unforgettable South American drama which follows a group of teenage soldiers

Distilling the ancient horrors of war through the experiences of a group of teenage soldiers, the Colombia-shot Monos is a truly masterful exploration of the relentless inhumanity of battle and the hostilities of adolescence. Displaying both a narrative poignancy and a bravura level of craft, it's one of the most unforgettable films of the year.

On top of a mountain in an unnamed Latin American country, as a largely unseen civil war rages beneath them, a rag-tag team of male and female guerrilla soldiers – including Moises Arias's Bigfoot and Sofia Buenaventura's Rambo – have been tasked with guarding an American hostage, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).

Occasionally visited by a physically diminutive superior from 'The Organisation', Mensajero (Wilson Salazar), who puts them through brutal drills and reminds them sharply of their responsibilities, they are otherwise left to their own devices – which largely involves drinking, drugs and dancing. When they are ordered down into a jungle base-camp, where Doctora becomes even more determined to escape, loyalties begin to break down.

Director and co-writer Alejandro Landes (who penned the restrained screenplay with Alexis Dos Santos) provides no social or political context for the events unravelling on screen. Location, time, loyalties outside the immediate group are all abstract concepts; the soldiers don't have any coherent uniform, and certainly don't seem to understand what they are fighting for – only that they must. Framed in this way, Monos becomes a primal, chaotic portrait of the indelible impact of conflict on a person's soul and psyche.

Stunning cinematography from Jasper Wolf follows this inevitable loss of innocence. The focus slowly narrows from widescreen vistas at the mountain top – where the soldiers are often silhouetted against the dreamlike expanse of the horizon – to the dirty, sweaty, deadly claustrophobia of the jungle camp – where faces caked with mud peer from the screen, eyes bright with fear.

Equally as immersive is Mica Levi's elemental score which, though sparse, elevates the film: timpani rumble like thunder over the horizon, electronic beats both speak to the apparent freedom of a life without typical adult supervision, and serve as a melancholic reminder of the carefree youth being denied to these kids. It works in harmony with the textural, evocative sound design by Lena Esquenazi and Javier Umpierrez, which makes expert use of the location – the call of birds, the snap of twigs, insistent distant gunshots – to bring an almost mystical, otherworldly quality to the film, and also bed these characters into their hellish isolation.

And this group is not just facing the alienation of war, but also the unmooring of adolescence. As well as fighting, they must contend with flushes of desire, jealousy, hormone-and-drink-fuelled rage – and all without any compassionate guidance. They are, at first, their own family, a close-knit wolfpack who look after their own; the energy and chemistry radiating from this exceptional young cast of professionals and newcomers is immediately infectious. The idea that these bonds could be broken by circumstances outside of their limited control is utterly devastating.

Selected release from Fri 25 Oct.

Monos

  • 5 stars
  • 2019
  • Colombia / Argentina / Netherlands / Germany / Sweden / Uruguay / US
  • 1h 42min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Alejandro Landes
  • Cast: Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson
  • UK release: 25 October 2019

In an unnamed Latin American country, a ragtag team of adolescent male and female guerrillas are guarding an American hostage, Doctora (Nicholson). There’s no social or political context: it’s a primal chaotic portrait of the impact of conflict on the soul. A masterful exploration of the inhumanity of battle and the…

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