Sam Bowerman is spellbound by Alejandro Landes’ visually powerful war film.
Equal parts hypnotic and horrifying, Monos is a deeply political work, submerged in rich, saturated colour and spiritual, industrial sound. It is visceral and dreamlike, yet grounded in brutal reality. It is at almost every point applying firm pressure on the senses, at times overwhelmingly so, at others in a subtler fashion. Wolf’s images vary greatly in their content – luscious green forest, battle through night vision goggles, serene landscapes drenched in mist, a moment of heat by a roaring night fire – yet they rarely vary in their potency or sheer beauty. Levi’s score, similarly, is ceaselessly affecting and frankly, brilliant. Ghostly, haunting, even strangely soothing, it bubbles under the surface only to violently erupt when the time is right. Much like the film itself, it is a carefully orchestrated conflict of order against chaos.
The film’s protagonists – a group of child soldiers collectively named the ‘Monos’ – experience this conflict at both extremes. At first; order. The group look after a hostage with seemingly no understanding of why, take care of a sacred cow, speak when spoken to, and even must ask permission to form romantic relations. In short; they obey, and are expected to obey. There is a strict hierarchy and a regime to which they must always adhere. Their superior – the ‘messenger’ – descends occasionally from the clouds to pass on orders from above, accompanied by the sound of echoing gongs. This is life for them. This control, of course, does not manage to constrain their humanity, or cover their flaws. If anything, it works in the other direction. With their basic instincts, needs and desires suppressed, they reach the inevitability of violence.
Most prominently for me, however, it expresses a critique of societal and political hierarchical systems.
A movement begins thereafter toward the opposing side of the film’s central conflict. Interestingly, the start of this movement is a brief moment of democracy, a vote, a glimpse of something close to cooperation. A one-off. From here, the political micro-climate of the group drifts closer and closer to complete anarchy. Fittingly, it is alongside this that the setting is transferred to the jungle, and the parallels with Golding’s Lord of the Flies begin to make themselves apparent. Hierarchy seems to remain, at first, underpinned by selfishness, before eventually true anarchy takes over. Every person for themselves. They have gone from soldiers to bandits. A state of nature perhaps. But again, violence.
The film’s journey could be seen as a contrast between the overt control of childhood and the sometimes overwhelming ‘freedom’ of adulthood, as there is clearly an interest in and exploration of youth. It might instead be taken as something more parabolic, given the abundance of religious symbolism. Most prominently for me, however, it expresses a critique of societal and political hierarchical systems. Rampant selfishness and discordant power relations bring about ruin, and although we see instances of a sense of community, it is not a pervasive or lasting sentiment. Some hope is found in the relationship of family – where we do see cooperation – but briefly. Regardless, Landes presents an effective, insightful critique, undermined only occasionally, and it is an exciting take on the very real problem of hierarchical relations. It would be more powerful if it was more solutional as well as observational, but it is powerful nonetheless.
Allegorical versatility and poignancy aside, Monos is a force to be reckoned with at every level. Formally precise and a sensory feast, it maintains a deftly paced narrative, which is bolstered by wild, animalistic performances from a talented ensemble of child and adult actors, many of whom are non-professionals. The distinction between professional and non-professional however is very much obscured. The cast provide a valuable contribution to a whole that is powerful and sublime, top to bottom. Monos is a beast. So grab your sticks.