Monos (Alejandro Landes, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Blindfolded children stand in a circle of large stones, framed by towering mountains, clouds swirling around. Is this a sinister ritual? No, it’s but a game; we soon see them kicking a soccer ball into a makeshift goal, cheering when someone successfully scores. Soon, however, what was benign becomes more deadly, as we watch an adult supervisor walk them through military training, chanting “you work for the organization and the organization is your family.” Everyone goes by a nickname: Wolf, Lady, Smurf, Swede, Rambo, Bigfoot, and more. They call themselves, as a group, “Monos” (which can mean “monkeys,” in Spanish, but also “alone,” here made plural). For what do they train? Who is the organization? We never know, nor is that the movie’s focus. Instead, we plunge into a disturbing, elliptical meditation on power and innocence.
Monos, from director Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) is a gorgeous, if stark, cinematic artifact, the Colombian locations – from peaks to jungles – imbuing the bloody violence at its core with poetic beauty. The director further pushes the allegorical nature of his tale with periodic montages that fracture the forward momentum of the narrative. It’s Lord of the Flies, only crazier and bloodier. Ostensibly we follow the journey of the Monos as they move their American hostage – played by Julianne Nicholson (Sophie and the Rising Sun) – but that’s merely the surface device by which we explore the dark recesses of our psyche. When we turn children into killers, what kind of horrific future does that presage?
The ensemble of kids is excellent, featuring mostly unknowns from Colombia, with the American-raised Moisés Arias (The Land) a notable exception. Landes also plays with our gender expectations, casting a girl, Sofia Buenaventura, in a male role, as Rambo (the most sensitive among the Monos). As Nicholson’s “Doctora” must become vicious, herself, in order to survive, the script forces us to question our assumptions about the masculine-feminine divide, especially since it’s predominantly male-driven psychosis that lands everyone in the no-win manic finale.
There’s a lot to unpack in the movie, though it doesn’t always quite hold together. Landes delivers a visually sumptuous diatribe about war and murder, set against the backdrop of Colombia’s long-running political crisis, but beyond the emphasis on children, does not have a consistently coherent thesis. The images, however, linger for days afterwards, so perhaps that’s his goal. We see and we process, learning from these little “monkeys” how to be human.