Berlinale 2019: Alejandro Landes' Stunning, Vigorous Thriller 'Monos'
by Alex Billington
February 11, 2019
One of the international highlights at both the Berlin and Sundance Film Festivals this year is a Colombian thriller titled Monos, the second feature film from director Alejandro Landes (born in Brazil, raised in Ecuador and Colombia; his first feature was Porfirio in 2011). The strength of this fantastic film lies in its simplicity, and its stunning dream-like feel that makes it a rush to watch. The official description is just as vague as the film: On a faraway mountaintop, eight kids with guns watch over a hostage and a conscripted milk cow. We follow as they progress deeper and deeper, yet nothing is revealed (in an obvious way) about the context of what they're doing or why they're doing it. And that vagueness works well when the film itself is as vigorous and compelling as this one, making it all the more enthralling to experience on the big screen.
Monos opens with a group of kids, mainly teens of various ages, playing around on a mountaintop. We soon learn that they're a unit of young soldiers, part of "The Organization" - which is some ominous, overarching military group that runs things there. And they're not only training but they've been tasked with watching over an American prisoner, Julianne Nicholson, and a big ol' milk cow they've been provided. Each one has a nickname, and that's how they're referred to within the unit, though things quickly descend into chaos because it's hard for them to stay in line. The comparisons to Yorgos Lanthimos' early work Dogtooth are accurate - it's a bit weird at times, but in its own unique way. Moises Arias gives one hell of a performance as Bigfoot, and the rest of the cast is just as riveting to watch. Each brings their own fierceness to their role.
The other highlight of this film is the score by Mica Levi (of Under the Skin, Jackie) which is, as expected, fucking incredible. It's so wonderfully loud and evocative, but only when necessary, building with orchestral sounds to enhance the intensity at certain moments. The rest of the time it's either atmospheric or mostly silent, letting the characters and sound design do all the work. The cinematography by Jasper Wolf is also incredible - the whole film is vibrant and gorgeous, nearly every single shot enhancing the work of everyone else. This balance of technical prowess and physical excellence works in near-perfect harmony to make the film feel dream-like - visceral and authentic, but also fleeting and indescribable. Where does it take place? What is really going on? There are no easy answers, which is the entire point of the film. It's hard to explain.
In all honesty, I don't fully understand everything about this film yet. I've been reading more about it from others. I didn't figure it out on my first viewing - and that's okay. I don't need to figure it all out right away. I love that I can explore more and get into it further upon repeat viewings. I love that it's possible to discuss films with friends & colleagues and consider various interpretations. I love that there is so much depth to this particular film. We don't have to solve everything and have all the answers instantly, and that's not only acceptable, but sometimes an attribute that defines an extraordinary film. There's all the basic surface-level interpretations, there's many deeper analyses, and there's subconscious cultural context worked into every film. Monos is an extraordinary film that does feel like a dream, one you'll keep analyzing for years to come.
Alex's Berlinale 2019 Rating: 9 out of 10
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