In Monos, a diverse group of hormonal teenage soldiers man an isolated outpost during an unseen war. Their station is a misty mountaintop dotted with monolithic concrete structures. It is said to be somewhere in Colombia but could easily be mistaken for the Scottish highlands. They’re tasked with watching over a POW who is an American doctor. They’re also tasked with looking after a cow called Shakira.
The soldiers have names like Wolf, Rambo, Dog and Lady. Many of them are bisexual. In an early scene Wolf “partners” Lady. On the morning after the party Shakira is accidentally shot (we are less than 15 minutes in). Monos was written and directed by Alejandro Landes, a Colombian-Ecuadorian filmmaker whose last effort, Porfirio, was released back in 2011. We can presume he has been stockpiling cinematic ideas in that time, at least if his latest is anything to go by. His new feature – which screened to rave reviews at Sundance last month – is nothing short of an aesthete’s dream, a film crammed with visual bravado that at various times echoes Kubrick, Malick, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Many a filmmaker has tried in vain to ape those directors’ styles but few have executed it quite as finely as Landes manages with Monos. Indeed, one imagines more than a few budding cineastes would give their right arm to be able to produce the level of artistry on show here, not least the scene in which Swede (Laura Castrillón) and Dog (Paul Caubides) trip out on mushrooms as a beautifully ethereal piece of original Mica Levi music plays on the soundtrack. Levi’s work is never short of astonishing and her score for Monos – which ratchets up the tension with a minimal arrangement of whistles and drum rolls – will add yet more weight to the argument that she is the perhaps the most significant composer of her generation.
Beyond said bells and whistles (or drum rolls), however, there is little in terms of plot. The central conflict involves Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), the most mild-mannered of the group, and Dog, their dreadlocked Kurtz, in a Lord of the Flies style showdown. Landes supplants the action from the mountaintop to the jungle for the second, giving the production team even more surroundings to play with – most strikingly with a selection of gorgeous underwater shots. The captured doctor is played by Julianne Nicholson, who some might recognize as Margot Robbie’s trainer from I, Tonya. Nicholson’s character gets a few juicy scenes of her own and the actress commits admirably to the physical demands – not least when the script requires that she escape the gang’s chains and survive in the wild.
Landes’ first film was a documentary on the rise of Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales. Porfirio saw him move away from that form while still focusing on the humanist, true-life story of a man who sued the Colombian state after a cop shot him in the back. Monos is a political film too, although it is political in the abstract, and perhaps more interested in the diversity of its cast and characters than in making any grand social statement. It won’t exactly rally anyone to a particular cause but it might remind the viewer of the strange flowing reeds from the beginning of Solaris, the feeling of grass between your fingers or the quiet menace of a bird call. Nothing wrong with that.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.
Rory O’Connor | @Roryseanoc