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film review

Alejandro Landes's Monos follows eight armed children and their American hostage in the Colombian wilderness.Courtesy of TIFF

  • Monos
  • Directed by Alejandro Landes
  • Written by Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos
  • Starring Moises Arias, Sofia Buenaventura and Julianne Nicholson
  • Classification R
  • 102 minutes

Rating:

3.5 out of 4 stars

Go ahead and call Monos a Colombian riff on Lord of the Flies – the filmmakers behind the new drama certainly won’t mind, given that one shot in their film lingers on a severed pig’s head held atop a stake. There are other obvious references, too, starting with the basic concept of children let loose in the elements, kicking up an end-of-days societal breakdown.

Yet Monos director Alejandro Landes and his co-writer Alexis Dos Santos have more on their mind than updating William Golding, only borrowing the novelist’s civilization-lost theme to explore the modern-day politics of child soldiers and guerrilla warfare in their fractured native land.

Films opening this weekend: Renée Zellweger’s star performance as Judy, the adorable Abominable and haunting Monos

The country’s FARC insurgency, which appears to still loom large over the Colombian national psyche three years after a “definitive” ceasefire, isn’t name-checked in Monos. Nor is it every made clear just where the film takes place. But the country’s long, bloody history between its government and the rebel group feels present in every frame of this beguiling, head-spinning work. Over the course of just 102 minutes, Landes creates a visually stunning epic of warfare and madness, following eight armed children (some edging into their teenage years) and their exhausted American hostage (Julianne Nicholson) as they lose their grip on morality and reality trapped in Colombia’s unforgiving mountaintops.

Reporting only to a mysterious adult go-between named “the Messenger,” who in turn relays information to “the Organization,” the young members of the “Monos” team (Spanish for “monkeys”) spend their days exercising, shooting guns into the sky and testing the limits of their environment and each other. There is a bit of forward narrative momentum when the group’s base comes under attack and the troupe are forced to flee deeper into Colombia’s wilderness, but Landes is not interested in plot so much as in creating an intense visual and psychological portrait of chaos.

In interviews, the director has stressed the “fever dream” element of his vision, which, if anything, plays down things: Monos is a singularly haunting work that might induce slight – if sincere – panic sweats. The director and his cinematographer, Jasper Wolf, have steeped themselves so deep into Colombia’s wilderness that the film feels almost organically sprouted from the country’s soil. Monos sinks you into its mud until the dirt stuffs your mouth. You won’t be able to breathe – but you’ll be thanking Landes for the cinematic suffocation all the same.

Monos opens Sept. 27 in Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary.

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