A pure cinematic experience like Monos is a rare and precious gem. Colombian director Alejandro Landes has created a surreal, sumptuous assault on the senses that’s as lushly beautiful as it is unforgettable. Trying to capture its essence in words seems to me a fool’s errand, akin to attempting to explain an exceptionally vivid and lengthy dream – part nightmare, part ecstatic revelation, but all-consuming – to someone else days after the dreamer has awoken.
The best I can do is to rub up against other monumental works of art. Lord of the Flies,Apocalypse Now, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are touchstones on the path of Landes’ astonishing and utterly immersive movie, but Monos casts its own wholly unique spell.
Its relentless pacing, remarkable acting and camerawork, and intentionally vague storyline mark it by orders of magnitude as one of the finest and most original movies I’ve seen in years; it’s epic and intimate, sublime and wild, otherworldly and very much a product of our times. A war movie that’s steadfastly anti-war, in which no known war is declared or ever quite explained,Monos will blow your mind and rattle you to your core.
At first – and last – glance, Landes’ film is ostensibly about a band of young guerrilla fighters waging a clandestine battle against an unseen and unknown enemy force. Its real-world template is so-called “asymmetrical warfare,” in which information, hostages and ruthless efficiency are the drivers and young, highly mobile fighters are the pawns. Although it’s never explicitly touched on, given this film’s geopolitical background and the gasp-worthy you-are-there settings that range from some 17,000 feet high in the Colombian Andes to the green hell of its untethered tropical rainforests and deadly, raging rivers, it’s not illogical to think this is a portrait of that country’s long-running civil war between the government and the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
But Landes, his crew, and above all the small, isolated cast (several of whom are nonprofessional actors) aren’t concerned with political specifics, much less good and evil.
Instead, Monos presents its band of rebels as a fluid, fractious family dynamic whose only contact with its overseer “The Organization” comes from The Messenger (Wilson Salazar), a squat but muscle-bound bringer of, as often as not, bad news. The eight members of the squad all go by nicknames – Bigfoot, Rambo, Wolf, etc. – and in their charge is an American hostage, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), who turns out to be… well, not a doctor, actually.
The other major character here is the insane terrain itself. There’s one white-knuckle sequence (among many) that tosses three main characters into a mad dervish of river rapids that appear to be absolutely real, and absolutely treacherous. Landes has gone on record saying that the film shoot was extremely hazardous, with multiple cases of malaria among crew members and medically necessary evacuations. (The thundering, anxiety-inducing score by Oscar-nominated composer Mica Levi only ups the feeling that what you are seeing is really, truly happening.)
If you view these mud-caked, dreadlocked tween and teen commandos as a family, it’s certainly a dysfunctional one. As the story progresses down from the Andes Mountains’ cloud banks and into the slippery, slimy, mosquito-infested primeval jungle, internal and external chaos rises incrementally until the final, jaw-dropping shot. In Monos, the conflict never ends, the center cannot hold, and this, finally, is where the wild things are.
MONOS ( 4 ) Directed by Alejandro Landes • Starring Sofia Buenaventura, Moisés Arias, Julianne Nicholson, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Paul Cubides, Wilson Salazar • Rated R • 102 min. • At Osio Theater