Carefully crafted personal politics feature heavily in one of the best films of 2019.
For a story about teens in the jungle, it is difficult to discuss Monos in anything but highly cinematic terms. It’s a masterpiece in every element. From the acting to the technical composition, it’s so much more than a teen drama. And yet, it is that, too.
Reviews of this movie that are readable are somewhat doing it a disservice. One wants to apply grandiose language. I had to stop myself from revisiting my books on film making just to talk about it. But this is also dismissive of just how universal this movie is.
It is specific, but it is not opaque. You do not need to enjoy arthouse movies to feel deeply the grand cinematic appeal and intimate drama of young people living closely together.
Regularly compared to Lord of the Flies, the sordid tale of what adolescents get up to when they’re on their own and living by their own hormonal wits has been adapted again and again. But while Monos features direct references to that book and the several movie adaptations(including the infamous pig head), Monos stands on its own as a story unique to the situations its characters are placed in.
Where and when the film takes place is never confirmed. We are somewhere in South America, in an undoubtedly modern era. Monos are a faction of the undefined rebel group the Organization, living on a hillside. They receive orders and grueling training from the Messenger (Wilson Salazer).
Their assigned tasks include keeping watch over a hostage, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), and caretaking a cow named Shakira. The plot movement happens during the copious downtime Monos have. The teenagers get up to what teenagers do: sex, drug use, and tomfoolery with heavy consequences that set off a series of events that will test their relationships with each other and their ties to the Organization.
At first led by Wolf (Julian Giraldo), the group will eventually be led into the jungle by his replacement, the chaotic and mercurial Bigfoot (Moisés Arias). In an interview with Build, Arias explained that director Alejandro Landes started with almost 25 children. Unlike Arias, most of them were not actors, so the approach was to “put them together and see who worked with who.” The very real emotions being shared by the members of Monos are clear through out, and doubtless could not have been built if the filming process out in the wilderness of Colombia were not truly strenuous and the connections between them not genuine.
Monos defies the audience’s expectations with what is an undoubtedly queer film and in a rare showing, none of the terror derives from the identities of any of the characters. Within we have violence and personal injury without threat of sexual assault or exploitative gaze. As viewers, we are moved from part of the gang to interlopers as seamlessly as the characters moving through the narrative. But we’re never voyeuristic. You will find no shots watching from the bushes as the teens live out their youthful indulgences.
As a film, Monos is fantastic at controlling our emotions. While not used as much as a hazard as other isolation stories, the environment, captured with great care by cinematographer Jasper Wolf, brings overwhelming beauty to the very personal brutality. Grand landscape shots are provided motion by the characters moving through them more often than not. While isolation is deeply understood by this movie, these cutaways as transitions create a world that the kids in Monos, and assumedly the Organization as a whole, understand and are part of.
It can be easy to get lost in the jungle, but even after transitioning deep into the thick of it after an ambush, or while following escape attempts, cinematographer Wolf gives us a clear sense of space and framing for our eyes to focus solely on the physical actions of characters who speak less often as the danger for them increases.
The soundtrack for this film is inescapable. There are conflicting viewpoints on whether musical scores should be additive, working in the background to guide the audience’s emotions, or if they should be a noticeable element of film making. It often depends on the film.
Mica Levi’s percussive tracks become their own character. The audience’s heart beat collectively rises as danger pounds into the Monos’ camp. We rejoice when the kids on screen celebrate and we clutch our seats as gunshots ring out from an unknown source and preparations to react take place.
To say dialogue is unimportant in this film would be a discredit to the script crafted by director Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos. Yet none of these characters are orators. That is with the exception of the Messenger who becomes more of a lecturing authoritarian adult and less of a comrade as the personal politics of Monos evolve.
There will be film theses written on this movie. I just don’t know how Landes is going to top it.