MONOS – Into the Fog of War

When one beheads the pig, it leaves a grotesque smile, poignantly describing the reaction for the unnecessary atrocity exhibition and lack of understanding for the stream of images witnessed before the final re-enactment of violence. Although the smile itself bluntly sums up the situation of the beheaded, it may also somewhat conclude the absurd blissfulness of those who watch the show, which is to say, these are absentmindedly approaching zombies of XXI century who feast on the impression. In fact, they may be hardly swallowing what the on-screen crime serves, but wholeheartedly engage in this fiesta nonetheless. This is how Alejandro LandesMONOS resonates, echoing as a modern take on child guerrillas used in Latin America, a vibrating metaphor set in the middle of Columbian nowhere. This is a sophisticated one, an almost sonorous spectacle on the texture of violence and when treated with the utmost care, it brings together the depth of THE HEART OF DARKNESS and the entertainment-hungry voyeurism of THE HUNGER GAMES. Guilty as charged, this piece was one of my highlights of 19th New Horizons Film Festival, one of the largest film event in Poland.

Landes, a Colombian-Ecuadorian filmmaker whose previous documentary PORFIRIO (2011) presented real struggles from the perspective of a handicapped, this time pulls the trigger for a fiction, although one that links allegorism with signs representing what the director supposedly deems to be a reality. Monos is a troop of child soldiers, having a Hitlerjugend vibe group of commando at the orders of the mystical Organization, all set and ready to kill, although they bear the names that would fit a childish game: Big-Foot, Rambo, Lady, Smurf, Wolf and Boom-Boom. Their military actions take place somewhere at the mountaintop, seemingly far from the front as just the glimpses of war barely come close to the attention: a single gunshot in the distant, an explosion creating an ambience of unknown, a silence that comes after the death of the unnamed. They exist in a fog of war, dancing inside the fear that comes along with it, doing the forceful impression of danse macabre when they perform the military exercise in the most theatrical fashion. Covered with the blanket of the mist, they live in a commune in what seems to be an alternative world as their deputy is a devil himself under the cosplay of an overbearing midget; and their mission – to keep an American prisoner Doctora (Jullianne Nicholson) and conscripted cow alive.

On a surface, the construct of MONOS might be read as a didactic warning – yes – Landes recreates the world where kids, inflicted in violence, give their maximum for a sect-like organization, a subgroup that may be as well religiously affiliated. More than that, it works well in the context of Columbia, a country where children still end up being used for military purposes, supposedly doing a volunteer service for activists of many sort, namely: drug cartels, the leftist guerrillas FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia – People’s Army) but also – what is even more shocking – as spies for national army. Monos troop seems to be a follow-up to the FARC partisans, as the motive of The Organization seems to be an anti-governmental one. Even though the government started multiple investigations and FARC themselves vowed to stop recruiting under-aged soldiers, children in Columbia still seem to be exposed to grave violations.

On the other hand, what the Netflix series NARCOS explored – and obviously glamorized to a certain level – was the boom of the cocaine industry and drug cartels, in which the infamous Pablo Escobar managed to open up his own empire. That included a picture of children in army being a significant part of the Escobar’s world, a picture staying still relevant after the decades had passed. In a contrast to this, MONOS is made the way that one is stripped down of any illusions: this is a true apocalypse now, all drowned in grey.

Columbia still stays at the top when it comes to using child soldiers, but the director does not use this precedent in his identity as a Columbian in order to recreate a reality show – due to literal representation, it feels like watching one nevertheless. Instead, he forces a proof, an image of flagrante delicto for national trauma, a simulated, but real state of things when kids become wild as animals. What strikes the most in Landes’ depicting of adolescence, is that the camera sticks together to the bodies of depraved ones, uniting with the image of their pulsating faces. It dutifully follows the movement of their flesh as they lose themselves in the shamanistic convulsions, slowly becoming the victims of war, and frankly saying – the most horrendous ones. Audience starts to embrace the point of view of the beheaded pig, as the head itself is set on the same level where the camera remains. While in their practicing, young soldiers are forced to turn their eyes into those that once belonged to the smiling beheaded animal, in the next frame juxtaposed with the camera POV. The observer himself is left pigfaced, stoned with the absurd dose of fierce images that stand for the war acuteness.

MONOS represents a true embodiment of malice, a recreation of Kurtz’s insanity, captured exactly a step before the final blackout. One may want to look away indeed, but eventually is lured into the voyeurism of cruelty, deprived of the right to avert the gaze, blindfolded by the extreme of overwhelming setting. It is almost a recreation of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty concept, a glimpse of a cinema of subversion playing the images along to the disturbance of one’s own boundaries, kept in a progressive pace, yet slowly burning from the inside.

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