The Colombian Oscar entry Monos offers an exciting contender in the upcoming Oscar race for Best International Film. The Latin American nation was robbed of a nomination earlier this year for Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Birds of Passage, but it could find justice come January. Nomination or no nomination, though, Monos delivers on the appetite for bold, challenging cinema that might have audiences hungry after films like Birds of Passage. This film from director Alejandro Landes is a breathtakingly beautiful and absolutely thrilling hostage drama.
Monos takes place in the mountains of the Amazon, high above the clouds away from city life and Wi-Fi. It’s the perfect getaway for a group of fun-loving kids, especially if they might also be young soldiers harbouring hostages for the local guerillas. Where William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has Jack, Ralph, Piggy, and Simon, Monos has Bigfoot, Wolf, Dog, and Boom Boom, plus Lady, Rambo, and Swede to inch the group closer to gender parity. (And bring some sexual tension to the camp.) Armed with assault rifles and left alone in the wild, away from authority figures and social norms, the young soldiers become unruly lords of chaos. It’s not long before their well-run cadre becomes a disaster of authoritarian rule and in fighting. A pig’s head even appears on a stick to drive the Lord of the Flies-isms home.
The young guerrillas have two tasks. The chief goal is to safeguard an American hostage while the adults negotiate from afar. The budding soldiers simply know the hostage by a codename, “Doctora.” (Sara Watson, though, as they adults reveal.) Played by an exceptional Julianne Nicholson (I, Tonya) one can see the terror in Doctora’s eyes, but also a hardness and determination: she’s a fighter.
The other task, simply, is to tend to a cow. The cow, named Shakira, should provide milk and eventually meat, despite her bony frame. (Those hips don’t lie!) Both tasks should be simple. But leave some youngsters with raging hormones and guns, and the easiest of assignments is bound to go haywire.
Sparks fly between two of the soldiers. Soon, one of the more unruly, virile males marks his friends’ rite of passage by shooting rounds into the air. A stray bullet hits one of their precious cargo, which leads to a rapid breakdown of the group. In the midst of death and grief, they can’t decide how best to present the story to their superiors. A hierarchy ensues as Bigfoot (Moisés Arias) establishes himself the Alpha male and deviates from their assigned mission. As divisions appear within the ranks and the inexperience of the young warriors leads their squad to unravel, the drama becomes more thrilling. It’s clear that Doctora isn’t the only hostage.
Landes crafts an absorbing fable as Doctora tries to outwit her captors and they in turn rebel against their own. Nicholson is the film’s emotional anchor. With few scenes and fewer speaking lines, she injects the film with a compelling current of humanity. Doctora is a quietly captivating presence, calm and cool under pressure. Nicholson carries much of the film with her intense physical performance. Her desperation to connect to her young captors provides the film with its few moments in which a character respects another’s dignity. They’re also key scenes that inspire empathy for the young and violent captors.
When we see the young soldiers interact with the supervisors who come their way, there’s little mutual respect. Simply a “Yes, drill sergeant” dynamic defines the militia as the youths fall in line and obey. The actors are uniformly strong, particularly in working together as an ensemble. Their youthful energy reminds a viewer that they too were ripped from a familiar life and brought to the mountains.
The striking, haunting cinematography by Jasper Wolf harnesses the natural landscape to draw upon the power of the unknown. Engulfed by trees and clouds, Doctora and the faction of young soldiers are eerily isolated. A sense of unease pervades Monos as the drama flows elliptically, in large part thanks to the hypnotic score by Mica Levi (Jackie).
There’s no clear passage of time between days in Monos. Each every shift of the clouds brings the kids closer to a point of no return. The deeper they go into the jungle, the further they remove themselves from their humanity. At times, Monos plays at the level of myth. The sinuous clouds and flowing mountaintops transport the drama to another place. But Landes keeps it grounded. The compelling characters remind viewers by the final frame that there are many more lives at stake than Doctora’s. Monos is a riveting hostage drama, artfully, suspensefully, and provocatively told.
Monos opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Sept. 27.