Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Flies in Alejandro Landes’ Monos, a striking picture recently crowned Best Film at the BFI London Film Festival. The ‘Monos’ of the title are a unit of child soldiers, living on a marshy plateau high up in the sierra. At times their existence appears uncannily bucolic: they play games, tussle in the mud and use playground-style nicknames. But of course their games are training exercises, and their nicknames noms de guerre. Their mission is to guard a hostage, an American woman known only as Dóctora, but save for occasional visits from the Messenger, a diminutive disciplinarian who trains them, the teenagers are left to their own devices.
They drink relentlessly, fire their guns, trip out on edibles and dance round the fire with flares held aloft. This pleasure-seeking seems distinctly pleasureless – it is all uncomfortable and rather frightening to watch. Added to this heady cocktail is the culture of fear and distrust created by the Organisation, the militia that the squadron serves: the teenagers are anxious to please their superiors, and when things inevitably go bad, the result is desperate infighting and scapegoating amongst the unit, as former friends scrabble to avoid being court-martialled or worse.
Technically, visually, the film is spectacular. The remote páramo, or bleak Andean upland, provides a stunning backdrop to the narrative: there are some particularly memorable shots of silhouettes cast against the broiling cloud that envelops the mountainside. The imposing landscape is well-matched by an imposing soundscape, as the beguiling woodwind of the early scenes is increasingly punctuated by ominous drum rolls. The wider conflict finally reaches the base - in a battle scene that is filmed in nightvision, with flashes of tracer bullets arcing across the valley – driving the soldiers and their captive down into the jungle.
It is down here in the rainforest that things really begin to unravel: the radio, their sole link to the Organisation, is destroyed, and with it, any semblance of order or camaraderie evaporates. All the young cast are superb, but Moisés Arias is the pick of the bunch as Bigfoot, the brutal tyrant who seizes control. Scraggily cornrowed, his face is menacingly expressive throughout, his eyes glinting evilly. Julianne Nicholson is brilliant as Dóctora, broken by her ordeal but desperately determined to escape by any means necessary. Sofia Buenaventura deserves praise for an impassioned performance as the ironically-named Rambo, the most empathetic and least bellicose of the group. All make it impossible to tear your eyes away, even as the film descends into a nightmarish hallucination of camouflaged faces and violence. In a vignette that continues to haunt me, the youngest member of the unit, accused of betrayal, is tied up face-to-face with a pig’s rotting, eyeless head.
That the Monos become even more merciless once freed from the shackles of the Organisation shows how much irreparable damage has been done, how far their innocence has been corrupted. These children have been pushed to the extreme, both physically and mentally, and there is no way back from the tipping point. As the film hurtles towards its conclusion, the tension is continually ratcheted up with futuristic sounds reminiscent of sonar, and a deep beat like a helicopter rotor blade. Yet there is no let-up, no respite, no pulled punches. Even with such impressive camerawork, one is never allowed a moment to marvel - in fact there is little room for any positive emotion at all. Friday feel-good viewing it is not; Landes' piece is a a visceral psychological study on a monumental scale. Together with his cast, he has crafted an utterly harrowing masterpiece.