Film Review: MONOS (Colombia 2019) ***

Monos Poster

On a faraway mountaintop, eight kids with guns watch over a hostage and a conscripted milk cow.


Alejandro Landes


Alejandro Landes (screenplay), Alexis Dos Santos (screenplay) | 1 more credit »

Premiering at this year’s Sundance, MONOS  (meaning ‘monkeys’) is an original enough film that draws from Lord of the Flies but filmed in Colombia.  A commando group of youth train in the jungle while given the task of looking after an American hostage by their chief.  Thing go south when the cow they have borrowed is killed and the hostage escapes.

There is something inherently beautiful to see male bodies tugging at each other during military training.  Famed French director Claire Denis realized this and her film BEAU TRAVAIL has an image of topless men in combat – a very homoerotic image.  This image is repeated 20 minutes into MONOS with half naked men (youths in this case) fighting each other.  But the recruits on training her are of both sexes, so naturally there is some making out between male and female (of the characters Wolf and Lady, which they celebrate.

Looking at youth reacting to war and chaos has been a fond subject in English literature as evident in the bestseller Lord of the Flies, where a group of boys stranded on an island start up their one rules for survival.  MONOS holds intrigue for the identical reason but in an ambiguous war setting.

The setting is on a remote mountain in Latin America.  The film tracks a young group of soldiers and rebels — bearing names like Rambo, Smurf, Bigfoot, Wolf and Boom-Boom — who keep watch over an American hostage, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).  The teenage commandos perform military training exercises by day and indulge in youthful hedonism by night, an unconventional family bound together under a shadowy force known only as The Organization. 

The script (co-written by Landes and Alexis Dos Santos) does not give details of what the group MONOS is fitting for or where the hostage is coming from.  These lack of details undermine the authenticity of the plot.  Director Landes does not favour any singular one of the rebels. Each react more with their instincts than their brains.  Anyone of the revels can turn violent and kill, including the American hostage who ends up killing a rebel.

The musical score by Mica Levi is accompanied with non-musical sounds which creates an eerie environment.  The landscape of the jungle (fog hovering around the mountain tops;  thick rain clouds) and the river waters is stunning, credit to cinematographer Jasper Wolf.

The film takes a more violent turn after an ambush drives the squadron into the jungle, both the mission and the intricate bonds between the group begin to disintegrate. Order descends into chaos and within MONOS the strong begin to prey on the weak in this vivid, cautionary fever dream. 

MONOS opens with a special week long engagement at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  The film has already played at many film festival receiving accolades of praise.  MONOS is also Colombia’s entry for Best Foreign Language film for the next Academy Awards.


Film Review: NOVITIATE (USA 2017) ****

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Novitiate Poster

Set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II, a young woman in training to become a nun struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.


Margaret Betts

Films with the Catholic Church as its subject have always painted a ghastly picture of the religious institution.   Recent films like the Foreign Film Oscar Winner IDA and the Best Picture Oscar Winner SPOTLIGHT immediately come to mind.  But is the Peter Mullan’s 2002 biting satire THE MAGDALENE SISTERS that bear the closest resemblance to Margaret Bett’s equally scathing drama NOVITIATE.  THE MAGDALENE SISTERS and NOVITIATE take different paths but both make good companion pieces.  

NOVITIATE begins with Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) at a church altar, questioning God on her choice of becoming a nun.  The film flashes back to 1964, 10 years earlier to follow the chain of events that led her to make this decision and how she has come to question that decision.  By immersing the audience into the single character of Cathleen, Betts brings her audience to the first lesson in ‘novitiation’ or “Becoming a nun 101”.  It is an eye-opening and gruelling lesson.

Cathleen enters a convent, convinced she’ll never be more in love with anyone except for God.  Her mother, (Julianne Nicholson) is totally against the idea, chastening her daughter telling her she knows nothing about religion or that love for God.  Betts puts the audience on Cathleen’s side, but later on in the film, turns the audience back to the mother;s side, when the church has gone so wrong that Cathleen’s decision might not have been the right one.

The church gone wrong arrives in the form of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).  When the film opens, the Pope and higher ups in the Vatican decided on reforms (called Vatican II) to modernize the Church so that it be more relevant in current times.  The Reverend Mother must learn to relinquish authority after the news of planned reforms from Vatican II.

Melissa Leo steals the show, aided by three segments containing well written dialogue for her character.  One is her opening speech stressing that there is no love without sacrifice.  Another is her defence against the Archbishop when confronted on her authority and the last is her confrontation scene with Cathleen’s mother.

One glaring problem of the film is Cathleen’s make-up.  It is clear to everyone that nuns or those in training are not allowed any makeup.  Yet, Cathleen is seen with eye shadow, powder and light lipstick.

Betts keeps her film always interesting by the addition of several subplots that back up the main one of Cathleen.  One is the abuse of Sister Sissy who ends up being sent home.  Another is Sister Mary Grace’s service at the convent.  She is sincere, loving and open but finally is forced to confront the Reverend Mother.

NOVITIATE ends with the note that after the Vatican’s reforms (which are signalled as progressive in Betts’ film, 90,000 nuns have since left convents all over the world.  This poses the disturbing implication that these 90,000 nuns must have been against these reforms and have been practising cruelty of the past.



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