The lack of specificity that runs through Alejandro Landes’ free-form film about a group of teenage commandos living in the South American jungle can be seen as its main stylistic purpose. The viewer never finds out why these kids have joined in what is either a political cause or a criminal enterprise, or whether they were somehow forced to join. Nor do we get much in the way of insight into their own feelings about what they’re doing. All we see is their actions and reactions, which often elicit empathy on our part but not enough to sustain any interest in a particular character, all of whom are tagged with disassociating nicknames anyway (Boom Boom, Dog, Rambo, etc.). The obvious similarities to The Lord of the Flies were probably inescapable to Landes, which is why he gets the matter out of the way by including a scene that focuses on a pig’s head, but the differences are more apparent, and more confounding. Without an idea of the larger world that created both this ragtag group of mini-terrorists and their overlords, the movie never taps into anything significant in the viewer’s mind.
Though the kids live by themselves in the jungle they are ostensibly under the thumb of that unseen organization, whose only representative we see is a short, muscular factotum who shows up and perfunctorily puts the kids through various training exercises and then gives them tasks, which they usually mess up. Early on, they’re provided with a cow, a “gift” from a local, presumably sympathetic farmer, and told to take care of it. However, during a drunken party guns are fired and the cow accidentally killed. Though they know they’ll be in trouble (the cow would, theoretically at least, be returned one day to the farmer) they make the most of the situation and butcher the animal.
However, the troops’ main charge is an American woman, whom they call “professor” (Julianne Nicholson), put under their care after being kidnapped from what sounds like some kind of environmental expedition. At one point the kids try to make a “proof of life” video with mixed results, and as the movie proceeds and the professor’s fate seems up in the air to both her and her captors the pointlessness of it all becomes acute. She gets moved from a mountaintop to a secluded location in the jungle, an order her captors have a great deal of trouble carrying out because of their inherent lack of coordination.
Monos isn’t really concerned with kids forced into combat, because there is no “war”; or, at least, none that we can see until very late in the movie when Landes throws in a bit of pursuit intrigue and people finally die. In fact, had Landes gone a more conventional route and played up the thriller aspects of an earnest but inept group of adolescents playing at adult games of brutality, he might have ended up with something more revealing than this study in disaffected teenage ennui. The best you can say about Monos is that it’s a gorgeous film about nothing in particular.
In Spanish and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
Monos home page in Japanese
photo (c) Stela Cine, Campo, Lemming Film, Pandora, SnowGlobe, Film i Vast, Pando & Mutante Cine