Do a Google Image search of the word monos, and you’ll get mostly a bunch of pictures of monkeys. It is the Spanish word for monkey, after all. It is also apparently slang for “cute,” often applied to kids — the way English speakers might affectionately call children “little monkeys.” One could argue, then, that the Colombian film Monos has a title that translate not so much to “monkeys” as to “cute kids.” This is a clear irony, as the kids in question are all teenagers on some unnamed Latin American mountaintop, holding an American prisoner of war (Julianne Nicholson, the only American actor in the cast, previously seen as Tonya Harding’s skating coach in I, Tonya).
Director and co-writer Alejandro Landes here presents a movie highly stylized, not so much in affect but in editing and cinematography. To my eyes it has shades of Terrence Malick, all visuals at the expense of a fully fleshed-out story, and yet, what a feast for the eyes it is. In the opening shot, this group of teenagers on a lush green mountaintop higher than the clouds, are playing a game of soccer with blindfolds on. There is a palpable sense of camaraderie among them, these teenage kids bound to each other through circumstances, overt military training, and other mysterious means. We never learn anything of their parents, where they come from, how they came to this place or this circumstance in their lives.
Several other critics have likened Monos to Apocalypse Now, and honestly, I don’t quite see it. I actually rewatched Apocalypse Now not long ago, and was stunned by the scope of its production, particularly for a film made in 1979. It is a vast, mesmerizing account of characters traversing the landscape of the Vietnam conflict. That is a film with a very specific point of view, which comes across with real clarity. I’m not sure the same could be said of Monos, which is almost pointedly coy about its point. And although it’s certainly impressive that Monos apparently found remote regions of Latin America that had never before been captured on film for a motion picture, that alone does not mean it matches a film like Apocalypse Now in terms of scope.
Others have compared Monos to Lord of the Flies, and that comparison makes much more sense to me, and was the only other work I thought about while watching this film. This is less a story about the hell of war than it is a story of adolescents embracing circumstantial independence to the point of abandoning any sense of morality. This is something Landes presents particularly well, getting well over half the movie before depicting behaviors that are jarringly callous.
The kids in this story are not given regular names, only the nicknames they all give each other: Rambo, Bigfoot, Swede, Smurf, Dog, Lady, Wolf, Boom Boom. Even the lady prisoner is only ever referred to as “Doctora” by the aforementioned hardened teen soldiers. By and large, they give solid performances, with the notable exception of “The Messenger,” the curiously short yet incredibly buff man who is apparently a sort of ambassador between these kids and an unnamed army fighting in an unclarified conflict. He is played by Wilson Salazar with consistently wooden indifference, even when he’s shouting. He plays a key role, though, as he “loans” a milk cow to this crew of kids, and the cow’s accidental death due to reckless shooting of machine guns into the fog is what sets the majority of this story in motion.
The doctor prisoner makes multiple attempts at escape from the group, as does one of the kids in the group, in both cases resulting in plot detours that get into the fatal senselessness of armed conflict. The kids’ base on the mountaintop is attacked at one point by unnamed soldiers, and the kids make it away alive; this is how the setting of Monos moves from the mountaintop, for maybe half the story, to a thick jungle area along a river. In both cases the landscape is always stunning, making for reliably gorgeous settings for occasional horrors. There is a helicopter ride at the end over a massive city we can only assume is Bogotá, the fifth-largest megacity in South America.
I’m not really sure what Monos actually has to say, what its definitive point of view is, beyond perhaps the tragedy of ease in corruptibility, particularly of youth. Landes leaves out a lot of pertinent information, presumably with the intent of the viewer grappling with questions on their own. This approach sometimes works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Here, I guess, it sort of works. I was engaged in the film from start to finish, and found it intellectually stimulating in the moment. Aside from now well shot it is, however, I’m not sure it will stay with me for a particularly long time. That, if nothing else, certainly separates it from a class of movie like Apocalypse Now, or a class of literature like Lord of the Flies. This movie borrows ideas from both, yet lacks the precision of theme and clarity of either.