What a week for another of the most original releases of the year to appear, too. Monos won the Best Film at the London Film Festival just a couple of weekends ago, and now it arrives in a haunting, feverish fantasmagoria that’s earned comparisons with Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Flies.
It’s about a group of teenage soldiers in the jungles and mountains of a South American country, probably Colombia. With names like Wolf, Lady, Rambo, Boom Boom and Bigfoot, they’re being trained in combat by a dwarfish, muscular indigenous Indian commander, and told they fight for the Organisation.
Clearly, they’re being groomed by cartels or rebel forces, but mostly they’re left to their own devices and go feral, partaking in tribal rituals, bonfires, sexual explorations and gleeful gunfire. They also play blindfolded football with what looks like a disused bomb – one of the most surreal opening scenes and an on-screen sporting re-enactment which rivals the tennis match in Blow Up or the football match in Timbuktu.
There’s a ‘doctora’ among them, a white woman, who has to hold up a newspaper and speak to a video camera. Gradually, we realise she’s a hostage but she first appears part of the gang, tolerating them and caring for their medical needs.
After their mountain hideout comes under threat (and the accidental death of a cow), the group relocate to the jungles and it becomes a power struggle as Bigfoot takes control of his young troops, destroying the radio from which they received occasional commands. They are few in number and it is now not at all clear what they’re supposed to be doing. I’m sure the youngsters themselves have no idea.
Director Alejandro Landes tells it in quasi-hallucinogenic tableaux – scenes of training, camouflage, escape attempts, torture, mosquito swarms, tropical rain and mud.
A searing Mica Levi score underlines the extraordinary photography, a soundtrack that mimics the screeches of both jungle animals, storms and gunfire to create a febrile nightmare, at once idyllic and corrupted, a kind of pure chaos unleashed.
What keeps you hooked are the fates of these children and that of the ‘Doctora’, and certain ‘Indiana Jones-style’ jungle moments and chases, the director throwing in thrilling sequences of survival (one, in the rapids looks impossibly dangerous) amid some Malick-like moments of flora and fauna contemplation.
It’s an extraordinary film, distinctive and exciting, political and humane, unsettling and thrilling, and it comes at you like a jolt.