Writer: Alejandro Landes and Alexis dos Santos
Director: Alejandro Landes
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
This brutal depiction of child soldiers somewhere in the forests of South America looks beautiful. Green and fecund, the landscape of mountains and rivers extends beyond the camera, but at ground level the trees, the waterfalls and the mud keep the foot soldiers prisoners. Their lives are violent and bloody, and yet Alejandro Landes’ film is too dazzling to look away.
These teenagers may be prisoners of the landscape, and also of their commanders, reachable by radio, but they also keep their own prisoner, an American woman they call Doctora. The soldiers – known as monos, monkeys in English –have the job of keeping the valuable hostage alive, moving her from one isolated camp to another as forces try to find her. In lieu of responsible adult, she also, at times, becomes the soldiers’ mother, or even the object of their desires, their teenage hormones pumping through their bodies in the same way they pump victory bullets into the dawn sky.
The Monos’ attempts to hold her are various. Sometimes Doctora is kept locked in a cell, sometimes she’s forced to help butcher dinner, while in an early unnerving scene she’s encouraged to join in the celebrations as one boy turns 15. However, this is not Doctora’s film despite the echoes of The River Wild or even of Deliverance that flash past. The screenplay, written by Landes and Alexis dos Santos doesn’t focus on a single character; instead we glimpse moments as the boys struggle in their roles to lead and as the girls suppress their emotions.
If there is to be a hero, it is Rambo, androgynous and feminised for his tears. Played sensitively and hauntingly by Sofia Buenaventura, Rambo’s face is the easiest to read and we can see his longing for the excitement of playing soldiers when he finds himself in front of a TV. Despite the camera’s close-ups, the emotions of the rest of the cast are hidden by blanks faces, as to show fear or lust would mark these soldiers as vulnerable.
All the members of Landes’ young cast give sterling performances especially Laura Castrillón, whose angelic Swede conceals darker secrets and Moisés Arias, whose Bigfoot is lithe and fragile. As the American hostage, Julianne Nicholson is superb, considering she has few lines and has to convey her feeling through a face layered with dirt. Overall, there is little dialogue with British composer Mica Levi’s music doing much of the work here; only a few portentous drum rolls spoil her haunting score.
Monos has being doing the festival circuit since January and has been compared to Apocalypse Now, and, when a pig’s head is skewered on a stake, The Lord of the Flies. But while it has echoes of these films Monos is an original piece of art, perhaps a masterpiece. Jasper Wolf’s cinematography is a joy to behold as the camera hacks its way through the undergrowth or plunges into cool water. Always unpredictable, and thrillingly free of exposition, Monos feels like uncharted territory. It’s like the jungle itself.
The London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October 2019