Savina Petkova on Alejandro Landes’s ‘Monos’ (2019)
Life left to its own devices, life in militant form, stagnated by unbreakable rules and constantly exposed to death, that grimmer side of the world we prefer not to think about, it catches up. Think of the potency of a life beginning, one barely in its second decade, then think murder, fear, surveillance, and state of exception. Rather than leaving these words to the history books, Alejandro Landes takes on the grim responsibility of telling a story that might as well be blood-freezingly true, a cerebral tale of eight young commandos, forming a squad that goes by the name of ‘Monos’. They seem to be part of a bigger military resistance movement, yet no details of time, location, or identity are revealed. The implication here: this is happening and none of the circumstances matter.
The opening sequence oversees a nebulous mountaintop, that sky which seems to comprise of many layers that both shield the world below and single it out as a separate universe. A strict hierarchical structure is positioned when disciplinarian Messenger (Wilson Salazar) assembles the group and briefs them on their duties to guard Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) — essentially a war prisoner — and to attend to the cow Shakira that ought to be milked daily. The presence of this domestic animal here is in sharp contrast with the destitute surroundings and the commandos’ look: there is nothing but a concrete bunker there, no food or water source in sight, nothing to suggest humane living conditions. Yet, eight teenagers live there in an impossible child-adulthood limbo. For Rambo’s (Sofia Buenaventura) fifteenth birthday, the group assembles a celebration of lashing, taking turns in swinging a leather belt at him, until the count reaches the number of years turned. When Wolf (Julian Giraldo) and Lady (Karen Quintero) officially become a couple, an all-night drinking spree is complemented with inebriated machine gun fury. Yes, celebrations are violent, guns are nothing but natural extensions of young adult hands, and the alcohol does not help, when in a frenzy, Dog (Paul Cubides) shoots their precious cow.
That precise moment is perhaps the one of utmost narrative importance as the pin-point beginning of entropy. Chaos reigns in the hierarchy of Monos, their military order disintegrating in deliberation as to whether or not report the slaughter. The iffyness of the group’s moral values is confirmed again and again throughout the film, when the power dynamics intersect with gender relations. Submission and domination become a matter of survival, while the commandos keep overthrowing each other in verbal and physical combat. The viewer’s desperation aligns with the only grown woman in sight, Doctora, though her position as a hostage ultimately drives her own ethical code into the ground. No one is good or commendable in Monos and that makes for a rotten but vital image of human nature.
While accompanying the Monos group in their daily quarrels, disobedience, and gun-point honesty, one cannot help but grasp at the bigger picture of what the representation is actually telling us. Its bitter truthfulness is outright shocking, and in the back of one’s mind there is the hurtful fact that these are children. Still, reflecting on this statement, one might easily argue that they are not, even more, that they never were. Kids in a warzone, without and beyond family, children of a faceless militaristic regime, hidden deep in the jungles, they are bound to be stuck between childhood and adult life, taking on responsibilities and decisions not even fit for an adult, while trapped in the body of a minor. The boys’ faces barely reveal any stubble, body hair is not a yet a fact, rags and plastic bags make up for clothes but the constant attribute is a firearm. As the Monos advance through the wilderness, the taste of blood is present in the air, as it sticks even in your spectatorial lungs, one with the humidity and heat.
The camera is merciless and devoted, probably the only empathetic spark in the film that flies between the protagonists and the viewer. An unflinching focus on rotten meat, forbidden tears or the shootings, it also denies any personal space and distance to its characters. Extreme close-ups prevent emotions from slipping away, since their only outlet is a split-second confused look, or a glimpse of hope in the eyes. Yet like the sky overlooking Monos’ quest for independence, it all gets too dark too quickly. Remnants of cultured civilisation that one holds dear make an appearance either as break-dance moves or a belly-button ring, signals of a life forfeit, with little to none nostalgia. This is the present and it is ugly. Do not look away.
Monos screened as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival.