“I wanted to shape the film like a fever dream, that Buñuelian idea of dreaming while you’re awake,” director Alejandro Landes said about his latest feature, Monos, opening at Tower Theater Miami on September 26th. And a fever dream of epic proportions is what he delivers, taking inspiration not simply from Luis Buñuel, but from some of the greatest films about war and what it does to those involved in it, be they victims or assailants. Running through Monos’ veins are works like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (and by extension, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).
But Landes, along with co-writer Alexis Dos Santos, creates a unique vision with Monos by filtering those influences into his own story. And this unique vision comes with a unique approach, dropping the audience directly into the action without an ounce of preparation for what is about to unfold. In what seems like a land with no set place or time, Monos follows a group of teenage commandos in a time of war. Their days are torn between military training exercises and all kinds of teenage fantasies, making out one moment before filming hostage video tapes the next.
The group, known as Monos, is composed of eight individuals – Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), Swede (Laura Castrillón), Smurf (Deiby Rueda), Dog (Paul Cubides), Boom Boom (Sneider Castro), Lady (Karen Quintero), and Wolf (Julián Giraldo) – and the woman they have taken hostage, known as La Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). It is stunning to watch these performers embrace the roles given to them, especially with the knowledge that this is the first time performing for the majority. Nicholson in particular pushes herself to extremes and gives the films bursts of emotions; something as simple as providing proof-of-life is as captivating as when she’s attempting to escape from the dire situation she’s found herself in. But there is a ferocity present in every one of these actors, both professional and not, that is essential to war pictures, a landscape rich with narrative and thematic possibilities.
Monos in great part is about the militarization of young adults and a glimpse into the lives of those who fight in the back lines. Where cinema frequently shows wars being fought on the front lines, it’s rare to get a chance to experience life in the grueling but unseen territory of war. Oscillating between moments of transcendence, casual flirtations, bouts of violence, and more, Landes is working with experts behind the camera to create an experience that’s as immersive as it is isolating.
Cinematographer Jasper Wolf offers as many close-ups into the faces of the performances as he does intense set pieces, occasionally contrasting the gorgeously composed scenery and action with handheld digital video and night vision cinematography (reminiscent of the way Roger Deakins’ work with Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty embeds you in the uncertainty of war). Mica Levi, who composed the unique scores for Jackie and Under the Skin, enhances the sense of dread that exists in the unpredictable Monos. There’s an intensity to every note that bursts through the silences when least expected, creating an ethereal and unsettling experience that feels appropriate for the subject matter.
Landes’ film has proven both praise-worthy and controversial in its home country, Colombia. While it is Colombia’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature this year, some have taken it as a direct criticism of the peace deal signed by the government there with the central rebel group years ago. This resistance to discussing the fragility of peace and alliances, as well as exploring how war is won, is minor though, with the film doing wonderfully in the box office for Colombia. And in the US, audiences can make up their own minds this weekend on whether or not they love the Sundance Special Jury Award winner and have the luxury of attending a Q&A with the director himself, a former writer for the Miami Herald, on Thursday evening.