Of all places, the Movie Tavern at West 7th is the only Tarrant County theater showing a cool Colombian film right now. For Latin films, you’d generally look to AMC Parks or América Cinemas, which showed the excellent Colombian epic Birds of Passage earlier this year. For films that are weird and bloody and allusive, you’d likely peg either the AMC Grapevine Mills or the Grand Berry, which has First Love right now. However, you have to go to the chain eatery in the West 7th shopping district to find Monos, and this bold stylistic statement is well worth the trip.
The story begins at a muddy, desolate mountain outpost in the Andes belonging to an anti-government rebel group called The Organization. A unit of theirs called Los Monos, or “The Monkeys,” is there watching an American doctor (Julianne Nicholson) who has been their hostage for a while. Los Monos are a bunch of teenagers — three girls, five boys, and a milk cow named Shakira that sympathetic peasants have loaned to the Organization — who are bad at soldiering, and even though a superior officer called The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) puts them through sadistic military drills, he’s mostly away and leaving the kids to their own devices. They wave around automatic rifles with little regard for gun safety, and poor Shakira pays the ultimate price for it. She’s followed by the squadron leader (Julián Giraldo), who commits suicide in anticipation of being sentenced to death for failing to protect the cow. The group subsequently tips over into chaos.
This is the work of Alejandro Landes, a Brazilian-born filmmaker who is based in Colombia. I’ll admit to not having seen either of his previous two feature films (one of which is a documentary about Evo Morales). I will say that he has the eye for a striking visual, evidenced by his staging of Los Monos’ nighttime parties lit by bonfire, which are somewhere between pagan ritual and college keg party. The Colombian scenery gives him breathtaking natural scenery both in the mountains and then later in the rainforest, when the group is forced to move away from government soldiers. To this, Landes adds sequences shot in night vision (when one of the kids gets hold of a pair of goggles) and a scene where some of the kids get high on found shrooms. When one androgynous soldier calling himself Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) flees the group and finds temporary shelter with a family of five, her glimpse of a normal life and a TV documentary about Gummi Bears is as surreal as anything that came before. Landes also includes an obvious shout-out to Lord of the Flies, even though this film’s closer comparison is to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
However far out this exercise goes, Landes and co-writer Alexis dos Santos keep it grounded in emotional reality, as the group is riven by sexual entanglements and petty jealousy. They blithely assume that their educated white lady hostage will be helpless so far from civilization, and meanwhile she has stolen someone’s machete and hidden it away. Her escape attempt fractures relationships within the group, but not as much as the aftermath, when The Messenger sits everyone down and forces them to snitch on one another. It sets in motion a murderous chain of events that results in someone literally shooting The Messenger. The soldier named Patagrande, or “Bigfoot” (Moisés Arias) ends up as the dark heart of this story, descending into pure barbarism and bloodlust while trying to make himself into a king of the jungle. Arias is a Hollywood actor who blends in seamlessly with a cast full of actors who aren’t known even in Colombia, and if it weren’t for his prominent nose and less-than-prominent chin, you’d have a hard time matching up this feral presence with the actor from TV’s Hannah Montana and the film Five Feet Apart.
All this is supplemented by a pipe-filled score from Mica Levi, one of the most creative composers working in film today. In sum, Monos is more than just a curiosity or a sign that Colombia is making good movies. It’s a disquietingly strange and satisfying aesthetic experience in its own right.
Starring Moisés Arias and Julianne Nicholson. Directed by Alejandro Landes. Written by Alejandro Landes and Alexis dos Santos. Rated R.