By Jake Watt
5th August 2019

It's always a suspect decision to call a film "indescribable", at least when assessing it as a whole. Certain aspects may and often do elude one's ability to comprehend on a moment by moment basis, but in general a movie - especially one which adheres to a set narrative - can be summed up purely in terms of subject matter, theme, and so on. It might not necessarily be the case that there is nothing new under the sun, but it is quite difficult, at least at this point in the evolution of art, to create a narrative consisting of totally uncharted territory.

With that said, is 'Monos' indescribable? On a surface level, this film by co-writer and director Alejandro Landes is certainly not: its a mix of William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' (complete with a pig's head on a pole) and Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now', with some of Cary Fukunaga's 'Beasts Of No Nation' sprinkled on top. But it would be equally misleading to say that this film is in any way stale, rote, or conventional.

The simple plot follows a rebel group of teenage commandos bearing noms de guerre like Dog (Paul Cubides), Lady (Karen Quintero), Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Smurf (Deiby Rueda), Bigfoot (Moses Arias, 'Pitch Perfect 3', 'Ender's Game'), Wolf (Julián Giraldo), Swede (Laura Castrillón) and Boom-Boom (Esneider Castro), stationed at a remote mountaintop setting somewhere in Latin America.


The child soldiers play games and perform military training exercises while watching over a hostage, a kidnapped doctor they simply call Doctora (Julianne Nicholson, 'I, Tonya') for an ill-defined force known only as The Organisation. They also have to take care of a conscripted milk cow named Shakira, which is valued for the protein in its milk. There are aggressive and sexual currents which complicate the subjects' cliffside existence. Tensions aren't exactly running high, but things are definitely getting hormonal, even for Doctora.

Occasionally visiting them is a muscular midget referred to as Messenger (ex-guerrilla Wilson Salazar). He forces the teens through a series of torturous physical routines, encourages them to reveal each other's secrets and assigns them sexual partners, then disappears again.

Shot on location in Colombia on the Chingaza páramo in Cundinamarca, the beautiful cloud-shrouded mountain is an abstract, almost surreal universe, even before the kids start tripping on the magic mushrooms growing in Shakira's dung. Cinematographer Jasper Wolf uses dreamlike colour to give the film its rich mysteriousness and poetic beauty, accompanied by Mica Levi's unsettling score. The result is a kind of cinematic Terrence Mallick-y delirium; an aesthetic hallucinogen that emphasises the strangeness of this tale even further, whilst also creating a psychedelic atmosphere that succeeds in leaving the audience feeling buoyant.

Shot on location in Colombia on the Chingaza páramo in Cundinamarca, the beautiful cloud-shrouded mountain is an abstract, almost surreal universe, even before the kids start tripping on the magic mushrooms growing in Shakira's dung.

The film's slim plot also has a feverish quality. How long have the kids been there? Why have they imprisoned Doctora? What are the goals and ideology of The Organisation? When an ambush from an unseen enemy drives the squadron into the jungle (shot in the Samaná river canyon in Antioquia), things take a turn for the nightmarish as the group begins to fracture and Bigfoot establishes that the teens are a separate group to The Organisation.

It is here that Landes stages scenes that look so dangerous that you'll be reminded of Mel Gibson's epic chase flick, 'Apocalypto'. Nicholson commits admirably to the physical demands of her character, as the captured doctor escapes the gang's chains and tries to survive in the wilderness. There is a harrowing scene where Doctora tries to rest overnight in a jungle, desperately holding a plastic bag over her own head to keep the legions of buzzing bugs and mosquitoes away from her face.

When the teens go completely feral, the innocent Smurf and Swede, who has a romantic attachment to Doctora, remain sympathetic. The androgynous, remorseful Rambo becomes the closest thing to a protagonist. It's a rather weird and interesting take on 'Lord of the Flies' that seems to focus more on the ways we try to avoid the transition from carefree youth to the responsibilities of adulthood, even if it means keeping our adult selves permanently imprisoned or blasting them with machine guns. It also shares some similarities with Bertrand Mandico's 'The Wild Boys', which focused on gender-fluid characters and the violence of youthful sexual energy.

Perhaps the best way to describe the film is to keep it simple: 'Monos' is a mood, an aesthetic, an idea; a sensory cinematic experience more than a story.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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