Starring: Moises Arías (Hannah Montana), Julianne Nicholson (I Tonya)
Monos premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and played in the Panorama section at the 2019 Berlinale.
How do you standardise the definition of a fever dream? It’s a phenomenon that relies on a subjective distortion of what’s real; a coloured, personal perception of what defines us and what scares us.
And yet it’s a label that sticks to Monos effortlessly – in Alejandro Landes’ sophomore feature, eight teenagers are living and training up for a never ending war in the Colombian mountains, as the sound of gunshots ring like alarm clocks and they watch over a hostage, and a cow called Shakira. This instantly feels like the stuff of nightmares.
If the premise recalls Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness, it’s a deliberate link Landes makes. The lightning-sharp film uses a very real, still ongoing exterior conflict (the civil war in Colombia) to evoke the interior angst of these kids growing up at war with the entire world, as well as themselves.
Bigfoot, Rambo, Smurf, Swede, Wolf, Perro, Bum Bum and Lady make up the ragtag pack (‘Monos’ refers to the name of their team), archaically and ruthlessly kept in shape by the Messenger – the bootcamp leader played by Wilson Salazar, who has been a member of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces since childhood. This, a display of unbridled discipline, is Salazar's first acting role.
Moises Arías in Monos
These children are animalistic, unhinged, lustful and terrified. The danger of their duties screams loud, both through the skin-prickling immediacy of the performers – mostly non-actors, save Hannah Montana child star Moises Arías – and the frenetic, almost dreamlike design. The neurotic score is inescapable, as composer Mica Levi follows her work on Under the Skin and Jackie with truly unforgettable music.
The apocalypse is tempered by careful scripting, only pushing the idea of hallucination to the edges of reality, never losing credibility. This is also anchored by Julianne Nicholson, who plays Doctora, the hostage at the mercy of the Monos. Her sensitive but still heavily charged performance counterbalances that of every child tormentor – as she faces Swede, they both have tears in their eyes. One is holding a gun, the other is bashing a leg shackle.
Julianne Nicholson in Monos
‘Show me strength, show me energy, show me courage!’, the Messenger roars at his disciples. Instructions aren’t lost on anyone – a visceral energy elevates Monos far beyond a retelling of any time or location-specific conflict, in favour of a fluid depiction of people in transition, on both an individual and global scale. Landes crafts a dizzying interpretation of social teething stages that would, and will, rattle anyone.
Bodies are grabbed, kicked, kissed, held and chained. From the thick clouds of the mountaintops to the humid leaves of a tropical jungle, place and time matter little when the people on show are playing with bone-deep urgency. Call it a fever dream, but be prepared for Monos to completely obliterate whatever definition you could dare to imagine.
Reviewed at the 2019 Berlinale. Monos will be released in cinemas later this year.
|What||Monos film review|
25 Oct 19 – 25 Oct 20, TIMES VARY
|Price||£ determined by cinemas|
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