Stripped of all ideological references and precise geographical context, the unspecified armed conflict fueling the indelibly transfixing “Monos,” a Colombian voyage from visionary auteur Alejandro Landes serves as model stage to examine primal instincts cinematically. Viscerally philosophic, this sensorial barrage cuts into the viewer’s psyche like a knife through flesh in that its artful rawness transcends the limits of the screen.
Flanked by a stunning sea of clouds on a celestial mountaintop, a precarious encampment houses a pack of military-trained teenagers at the service of an unknown radical organization. Their cartoonish code monikers — Wolf, Rambo, Smurf, Dog, Lady, Swede, Boom Boom, Bigfoot — contrast with the rugged semblance and ferocious conduct they project. Children camouflaged as soldiers, they’ve been hardened by both inhospitable nature and unseen indoctrination.
The Messenger (Wilson Salazar), a superior short in stature but imposing in rigidity, has entrusted the Monos unit with the supervision of a foreign hostage, Doctora (Spanish for female doctor), played with searing bravura by Julianne Nicholson, who aimlessly dances in her cell and memorizes her reflection in a broken mirror to retain certain elements of her humanity. Later, as an ambush relocates the juvenile captors from high altitudes to the tropical wilderness, the Doctora’s position as passive observer transmutes.
Landes thoroughly imbues his savage fable with animalistic playfulness that never permits forgetting its gun-throttling troop is coming of age in isolation. Within the interpersonal dynamics of this micro society there are romantic disputes, tests of loyalty, and life-threatening power struggles. The filmmaker’s begotten a Latin American brainchild sharing chromosomes with “Heart of Darkness” and “Lord of the Flies” but with thunderous stylistic panache setting apart its 21st century frenzy.
Despite being part of a balanced chorus, each distinctive recruit fulfills a personality profile in their fluctuating emotional landscape. Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), for instance, emerges as the softhearted freethinker; Swede (Laura Castrillón) embodies mischievous vulnerability, while Dog (Paul Cubides) radiates sexually ambiguous fearlessness. It’s a harmonious anthropological arrangement from the mostly non-professional cast since they each access a specific behavioral note.
A dreadlocks-wearing Moises Arias renders a career-best work, and his first in a Spanish-language feature, in the soiled shoes of Bigfoot, who appoints himself dictator when the chance arises to go rogue in the jungle. The Colombian American actor nails the demanding part procuring the larger-than-life persona of a deranged leader confident beyond his size: a toned Napoleon in briefs and black paint.
Roles here, for everyone involved, were not traditionally performed or merely lived-in but visibly suffered and endured, surpassing any notion of method acting. Bodies drenched in perspiration and wrecked by exhaustion speak louder than theoretical process. Landes’ elliptical modus operandi channels all that physicality to create a euphoric narrative language.
That same kinetic vitality propels cinematographer Jasper Wolf’s imagery, as he captures delirious nights by a fire, underwater brawls, sensual hallucinations or the untamed vistas that lend ethereal gorgeousness to his frames. Capturing such vibrant chaos under unpredictable weather conditions in nearly untouched locations merits high praise for its technical prodigiousness. This very remoteness that enables the Monos to stay off the grid for their obscure mission submerges the story with an otherworldly allure. Wolf’s saturated visuals are in a dance with Mica Levi’s hypnotic score. First, a whistle reverberates throughout the terrain, followed by intermittent turbine-like sounds occasionally paired with operatic strings. One of her finest compositions in a list brimming with memorable accompaniments for acclaimed productions, Levi’s music this time around oscillates between the earthly and the divine, like everything else in Landes’ vision.
Unconcerned with assimilating his sensibilities to Francis Ford Coppola or Werner Herzog’s impressions of war, Landes, madman and genius, departed from the nearly 60-year-long bloodshed in his homeland to materialize a sweeping inquiry on the worst of our primitive urges with real-world consequences. Colombia’s revolutionary army FARC is never explicitly mentioned, neither is the purpose of holding the Doctora nor explanations for how each member of this low-ranking team came to form part of it. The absence of information facilitates universality. These guerrillas could be fighting in any country and communicating their orders in any language, the tragedy of their destiny would have just as much impact if told with similar directing prowess.
A towering filmic achievement, “Monos” pulsates like an inescapable vivid trance, cosmic and terrestrial at once, fantastical and violently stark, about victims and victimizers. Like all dualities, those in this excursion are two bends that belong to the same river.
Rated: R, for violence, language, some sexual content and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 13, Arclight Hollywood