In the beginning of Alejandro Landes’ second feature, Monos, a member of the Colombian revolutionary forces, referred to as “Messenger,” runs a group of Colombian youth of varying ages through training regimen as he proclaims, “We work for the organization! The organization is our family!”
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that we are never meant to obtain a clear understanding of the mission of the anonymous Organization. Our concern regarding this matter evaporates as the mission becomes shaped by the desires of the band of young Colombians, who take charge of who they are and what it is that they want in their lives. None of this has anything to do with the civil war being waged in their country. This begs the question of if they ever had a country.
In Monos, a troop of eight teenage soldiers fight on behalf of an unknown cause until their commitment to the cause deteriorates, along with their discipline and sanity. These soldiers, given the names of Wolf, Bigfoot, Dog, Boom Boom, Lady, Swede, Smurf and Rambo, follow the orders given to them by the Organization’s envoy, the aforementioned Messenger. The Messenger takes command through his presence of authority, which makes up for his comparatively diminutive size. But when the envoy is no longer at bay, these kids with guns come out to play in a display of debauchery and hedonism that leads to the incitement of the film’s major conflict involving a cow and twerking.
The most alluring aspect of this film is its presentation. The cinematography is astounding for an international release such as this. The shot composition, especially for the film’s establishing shots, provides the viewer an IMAX experience at matinee price. The crisp morning shots of clouds passing through mountaintops alone makes a conclusive case for audiences to see this in theaters. The presentation of nature and the Colombian landscape acts as a feast for the eyes similar to features like Samsara and Roma, while also displaying the cold isolation these soldiers face in a war they do not seem to understand or care about.
As said earlier, these are kids with guns. The presence of the cause they fight for is almost nonexistent. The viewer doesn’t get an understanding of the soldiers’ motivation to fight for it. Instead, they give a reason to fight. When left to their own devices, the soldiers take control of what their protocol is: They are meant to defend what is theirs and claim what they wish. In this game, you can have power, but you cannot have freedom.
The most compelling of the child soldiers is Rambo, the youngest of the Monos squadron who celebrates his 15th birthday at the beginning of the film. Though seen at times as the runt of the litter, it is not for his size. On the contrary, he is one of the squadron’s tallest members. Rambo is viewed as the “cry baby” of the group. He feels love for his other squad members that is unfortunately unreciprocated and used as a tool for manipulation. He experiences sympathy for the squad’s American prisoner, Doctora. This is someone who has gotten his hands dirty once and hopefully never again, but the mark of war has been left on him not by his experiences in battle, but by the feral nature and barbarous cruelty of his fellow man. He wants out, but he has no say in the matter when all is said and done.
The characterization of most of the other soldiers is fleshed out just enough, but it can be difficult at first to pinpoint who is who. Some remain in the background to fill out the squad rather than contribute to the drama. Soldiers like Boom Boom are often shown solely as a soldier. Doctora is solely presented as a hostage looking for an escape. While this is an easy plot point to latch on to as an audience member, the audience does not know who she is nor why she is important to the Organization. While this can be viewed as a weakness on the part of the writer, it can also reinforce how the Monos squadron views her — as property. She is something to be owned and through her they have power (an observation made explicit by both Messenger and Bigfoot with differing connotations).
The audience doesn’t get a full understanding of most of these characters. When an idea is formulated, the film figuratively, and once literally, laughs off any attempt at humanizing these children when deep down they are riddled with fear and shame imposed on them by their superiors. These are not mature, hardened soldiers going to war but rather youth robbed of an opportunity to live as they wish. When they find an opening to do so, the worst occurs, and blood is needlessly shed.
Monos is a visual spectacle conveying the effects of war and isolation like the past works of writers like William Golding and filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky. While deficiencies in character development may turn off some viewers or lessen the intricate drama within the squadron, to others this can further emphasize what being in this situation means for these soldiers. Landes does a fantastic job at showing how these youth see war, and it is vastly different from how it is often shown to most audiences.