There are a number of absolutely stunning moments in “Monos”, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year. While I often struggled to follow and understand its story and characters, I was constantly impressed by the considerable efforts put into its vividly realistic mood and atmosphere, and I really wanted to know more about its production process, which must have been pretty demanding as far as I could see from the result.
The movie was shot in a number of remote locations in Colombia, but it never specifies its background at all, and it simply thrusts us right into the ongoing situation surrounding a bunch of young commandos who have been staying together at some remote mountaintop spot. Throughout the film, they are only identified by their military aliases such as “Rambo”, “Smurf”, “Bigfoot”, and “Wolf”, and the movie does not provide any personal information on these young soldiers for, probably, reflecting how their individuality has been erased by the group mentality forced upon their innocent minds.
When a guy called “the Messenger” (Wilson Salazar) comes, the mood becomes tense and serious as he sternly pushes the young commandos through a series of grueling military exercises along with the constant emphasis on the devotion to “the Organization”, which is probably a fictional version of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. As one point, one of the young commandos seriously requests the permission for a romantic relationship with some other member, and that subsequently leads to one of a few amusing moments in the film as the young commandos eagerly prepare and then celebrate for the permitted romantic relationship.
It is gradually revealed to us that the main mission of the young commandos is holding an American woman as a hostage for a while. She is simply called “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson), and the young commandos do not see any problem in giving her some freedom from time to time, but it is clear to us that she has been pretty tired and desperate as her status as a hostage has been continued without much change.
Anyway, the young commandos keep sticking to their mission while having some fun at times, but, of course, the circumstance becomes quite problematic due to an unexpected incident. As they try to deal with its outcome which turns out to be more devastating than expected, the ongoing war soon comes upon their isolated spot, and then they find themselves at another remote spot along with their hostage, who discerns that now she has more chance for escape and does not hesitate at all once she sees an opportunity.
I will not go into details on what happens next, but you will not be surprised much if you have ever read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”. As getting more isolated than before, the young commandos are driven more into desperation and madness, and this process is further accentuated by another unconventional score by Mica Levi, which frequently disturbs us via the unnerving combination of timpani and whistle sounds generated from bottles.
Although it sticks to its detached attitude as before, the movie slowly comes to focus on Rambo (Sofía Buenaventura), who gradually becomes conflicted about what is going on in the group. There is a heartbreaking scene where Rambo is coerced to commit an act of cruelty on the hostage, and that makes Rambo have more doubt than before as also being more ostracized by Bigfoot (Moisés Arias) and other young commandos.
The movie later comes to lose some of its narrative momentum during its last act, but director Alejandro Landes, who wrote the screenplay along with Alexis Dos Santos, keeps holding our attention as continuing to provide impressive scenes with his cinematographer Jasper Wolf, who did a commendable job of capturing many awesome moments on the screen. I was awed by those frequent shots of mountaintops shrouded in clouds, and I was also quite impressed by a scene unfolded along a big river full of rough torrents (I was relieved to learn later that they took safety measures while shooting this terrifying scene, by the way).
Most of the cast members in the film are non-professional performers, but they all look convincing and authentic in their respective parts. While Wilson Salazar, who was initially hired as the technical consultant of the film for being a former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, effortlessly exudes authority over those young performers in the film, Sofía Buenaventura gradually holds the center as one of a few characters in the film we can care about, and Julianne Nicholson and Moisés Arias, who are incidentally the only two professional performers in the film, are also effective in their unadorned acting.
On the whole, “Monos”, which was selected as Colombia’s official entry to Best International Film Oscar several months ago, is definitely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but it is worthwhile to watch mainly for its admirable technical aspects, and you will not easily forget those striking moments in the film. Yes, it is a bit too allegorical and abstract in my humble opinion, but, nevertheless, I appreciate what Landes and his cast and crew members achieve on the screen.