Outstandingly directed “Monos” examines how coming of age looks in an outlandish, hostile and primal environment, and how youth needs that quintessential stage in life.
When Sierra Leone plunged into a civil war in 1991, the world wasn’t fully aware of the fatal legacy this conflict would later shed light on. Back then, both sides recruited children who were forced to carry guns and sacrifice lives in the name of lies and political influences.
This wasn’t even the first or only time that history witnessed such atrocity. Other African countries were infamously known for such children abuse, along with South American areas.
Child soldiers are also the topic of Alejandro Landes’ “Monos”.
In the deep jungle, eight kids wait for orders from a guerrilla warfare which recruited them in the past. The squad holds an American citizen hostage in an abandoned ruin, located on a mountaintop. But soon, when under the siege, child soldiers need to move further down, to the green hell.
Landes draws a fine line between the two parts of the story he tells. One is dedicated to coming of age. Beneath all the brainwashing, forced masculinity and military rigour lies a group of fragile juveniles, who crave relatively normal relationships and some degree of youth and freedom. It’s subtlety that dictates how camera takes a peek here and there, documenting the daily routines of titular Monos (that’s the name of the squad). They get ridiculously drunk, they kiss, they do all the stuff normal kids their age would try – the one difference is the weapon in each of their hands.
All of that scrutinised documentation is a marvel to watch, and the exceptional cinematography is a particularly excellent tool to imbue “Monos” with that left-outs, kind of surreal vibe. Landes brilliantly excavates the horrifying solemnity of tropical surroundings – he catches the intense blue sky, bubbles floating in a raging river or even sparks flying in the air on a canvas of the night. Each shot is both cherished and stunning. In a way, this really brings Icelandic films to mind – in “Monos” too, nature is the film’s character, as well as a representation of people’s state. Its raw form bites and soothes at the same time.
Once the ground’s changed to a jungle, “Monos” swaps the awe-inspiring plateau for a hectic base. Nature becomes a harbinger of danger, an enemy who cannot be shot or blown up. Camera entangles in corridors of trees and bushes, only to reach a river’s bank – a dead end to any possible escape. At that point, Landes’ focus turns more to reflections – the director is now interested in the consequences of Monos’ actions rather than sautéed-served observations.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers saw “Monos” as a plotless, even dire experience. Because it is, no matter how critical that sounds, a kind of artsy experiment that weighs on. With its no-professionals cast, Landes crafts something excruciatingly raw, thus unbearably to many.
But, at the same time, “Monos” speaks about the problem of child soldiers from an unknown, deterministic perspective.
What’s also noteworthy here is that Landes isn’t interested in a drama like Cary Joji Fukunaga was in “Beasts of No Nation”. We’re left with as much information as members of Monos and we’re just as lost as they are because the focal point of “Monos” is to understand the loneliness and confusion of its characters. We see them as prisoners who didn’t commit a crime and as soldiers whose enemy’s not specified. Toys are traded for guns, mothers and fathers for an emissary who visits as he pleases. And, most importantly, they are children whose lives are beyond repair.
Rather than considering “Monos” as a point-to-point story, it’s best to approach it as an experience. Alejandro Landes shows magnificent skills, and all this time, spent with his little soldiers, is tiring and difficult, but – at the end of the day – also wildly rewarding.
Dir. Alejandro Landes
Hate Grade: 1/10