The expectation of how stories work is anchored in the human experience of time. It informs the ways that we have learned to tell the stories of our own lives. In film, there is generally an audio-visual sense of reality framed within a two-hour span. Viewers are introduced to a world and its rules through a series of images, which generally align with characters and events. The storytelling occurs as viewers weave events and characters into a sense of plot, which then produces a tension/suspense as the plot moves from origin toward culmination.
Monos, a Columbian film from director Alejandro Landes (currently playing at FilmScene — Chauncey), opens on a plateau overlooking a jungle valley, on which a few stone obelisks and crumbling tower testify to human occupation. The viewer learns of eight children/teenagers who collectively form Monos; a Messenger from the Organization that recruits and drills the children; and a Doctor being held hostage by the Organization, whose safety and well-being is entrusted to the kids. No context is given for how the characters found themselves in this situation, for the political landscape, for the Messenger’s relationship to Monos or how the children in Monos relate to each other.
Soon, viewers also meet Shakira — a milk cow on loan to the Organization, whose safety is as important as that of the Doctor. Although the situation that Monos is in seems primitive, the film provides evidence of a functioning civilization — the Doctor reads the day’s newspaper aloud while the Messenger films it, as a way to offer proof of life. At one point, the audience sees a pig’s head staked, its blind eyes witnessing nothing, an image reminiscent of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies — a story similar to Monos in its depiction of children struggling to define morality with a sense of order anchored in violence.
Like Golding’s novel, the young characters are malleable enough to become somewhat indistinct — not quite individual, not quite allegory. Both also shows the everyday cruelty that humans come to assume as normal from an early age in life, and how this sense of cruelty culminates in violently imposed social structures. In Monos, the lack of a centralized, framing point of view, the young children who lack a fixed identity and the absence of much context make the film difficult to predict. Choices that lead to unexpected consequences are less revelations of character than witnesses to forces that alter our sense of what life and survival mean.
The absence of context exposes how often we use autopilot as a way to generate stories and motives for the world around us.
One of the main themes that develops in the movie is how order and structure (the “Organization”) becomes desirable as an alternative to chaos. Even if the rules do not make sense, they nonetheless provide a direction or point of orientation to help prevent anxiety. The children of Monos are clearly capable of discipline, even though it’s a sense of hierarchy, lack of autonomy and an implied sense of violence that holds this structure together.
When the Messenger is absent, the alternative to this sense of order emerges: A birthday celebration and wedding ritual are equally violent, although more filled with laughter. Some amount of tenderness is exhibited among characters, whose insecurities concerning sexuality and fitting in are highlighted by the setting. The coherent order imposed by the Organization is confusing, but the times when the Organization is not in control are equally so.
Throughout the film, violence is shown as a universal language among human characters — even those who are not the members of Monos. Sometimes this violence takes the form of games and play. Sometimes the violence is interspersed with love and warmth. Sometimes the violence is administered continuously and passively, as a chain around a neck. The ubiquity of violence makes the few moments of care and tenderness even more important.
Given its setting, the movie does an excellent job of avoiding clear boundaries between good and evil, vice and virtue. What could be deemed heroic or admirable from one perspective seems heinous and problematic in another. The lack of context generates a kind of moral questioning that is quite useful in a polarized American political climate that clearly designates its villains and enemies (even if the characters who occupy these roles shift).
The soundtrack is somewhat jarring: shrill sounds, along with static from the radio, disorient viewers periodically throughout the movie. The visuals from the film are stunning: the greens of the jungle; the clouds near the mountains; the glow of fire, star, sun. And the acting fits the tone of the movie: The members of Monos — whose names range from animal designations to pop culture characters — don’t seem to have had the chance to develop a sense of self, for themselves. Without a baseline of identity, the standards of morality become more difficult to discern.
The final scene of the movie — a prolonged, intimate shot — invites viewers to further reflect on questions of morality and identity. No dialogue fills these final frames. In silence, the unspoken invitation is to render a judgment about the character shown, a judgment that (following the brilliant logic of Albert Camus’ The Fall) discloses more about the viewer than it suggests anything about the movie.
To what extent are you complicit in violence as part of your everyday reality? What does courage mean to you? What would you be willing to do to free yourself — or to keep yourself from becoming free? Monos understands that the questions it wants to raise are of far greater value than any answer it could provide.