Berlinale 2019 Review: Monos (Alejandro Landes)

A concrete bunker emerges on a solitary, otherworldly Andean plateau. Eight teenagers perform a military workout guided by a short man. He yells at them: Wolf, Rambo, Dog, Lady, Swede. They no longer have names; their pasts have been erased. The guerrilla unit is their family now. As they exercise, these strong multicoloured bodies showcase the richness of Colombia’s mestizaje. A display of physicality so powerful can only transport the audience to Claire Denis’ Beau Travail or Céline Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (Girlhood).

Monos is the name of the guerrilla unit. The word probably refers to apes, but also means the cute ones or, specifically in Colombia, the blond ones. This may not be a coincidence, as there’s an ingredient of wilderness, of sensuality and of racial self-consciousness amidst these youth. Their main mission is to take care of Doctor Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), an English-speaking, presumably American woman who’s been taken as a hostage by the organization, a common practice among the Colombian guerrillas in order to finance themselves or exchange prisoners with the government.

The group welcomes Shakira, a dairy cow that will provide them with milk. The animal is brought by the messenger, the short man who trains them and serves as a link between the monos and the guerrilla movement. He insists on the importance of taking good care of the cow as it belongs to the organization and not to the group.

As the monos fulfill their responsibilities, coming-of-age narratives take over the story. This post-apocalyptic setting is also the landscape for their sexual awakening and experimentation with alcohol and drugs. During a celebration, one of the boys harms Shakira, and the fear of being punished or killed by their superiors destabilizes the whole unit.

After the accident, the film focuses on a struggle for survival and leadership among the group, including Doctor Watson. Rebellion, escape, treason. It is then that Landes’ impressive crafting skills are overshadowed by an overall abuse of fortuitousness in the plot, something that could not be expected from a film so sharp and urgent.

Landes nevertheless shoots one of the most visually striking works in recent Latin American cinema. The lens concentrates on the ceaseless clash between physicality and landscape, using military gear and technologies as resources for lighting and camera’s POV. Production and costume designer Daniela Schneider manufactures post-apocalyptic garments and shelters, a result of the group’s economy of means and careless attitude towards lifestyle and gender. Finally, Mica Levi’s challenging compositions seem to channel Orff and Morricone’s tunes for Badlands and The Mission through the style of a survival videogame score.

The exploration of sexuality becomes one of the film’s richest layers. The group, isolated in foggy mountains or inaccessible rainforest, has constructed their own standards. Their sturdy bodies have all received the same training, with no distinction between men and women. Same-sex kisses happen more than once, not as narrative game-changers but as effortless expressions of a new understanding of gender and love. Rambo, a central character in the group, challenges the guerrilla’s notion of masculinity and is actually portrayed by a girl (Sofía Buenaventura). Another teenager sings, as he fires his AK-47 into the air, about how his dad used to call him a whore. For a second, their hopeless lifestyle seems to work as a shelter from an equally difficult past.

The hostage offers one of the monos anything in exchange for her release… ¿qué quieres? The young girl is, at first, unable to answer.