Disarming Manhood, Raising Men: Toxic Masculinities in “Monos” and “Piranhas”
Wars do not quite simply claim lives — they also create new ones that are integral to their continuation. The lesson is not lost on two entries in this year’s Berlinale, Colombian-Ecuadorian Alejandro Landes’ Monos (2019) and Italian Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas (2019). Two dramas chronicling the struggle for survival of barely teenage kids stuck in conflict-ridden environments, they understand wars as catalysts — processes that shape the ways people who take part in them come to perceive themselves and their place in the world. The guerrilla child soldiers patrolling Colombia’s cloud-shrouded Andes in Monos may be a whole universe away from the street gang kids populating Piranhas’ present-day Naples, but they share the same unfortunate destiny. The hyper-violent contexts they’ve been raised in have led them to embrace a toxic masculinity inextricable from the notion of physical prowess and the ability to wield guns. But what makes Monos and Piranhas remarkable entries in their genre is not their understanding of the ways violence can corrupt youths — however perceptive and illuminating that is. It is their interest in looking at the notions of manhood that arise from a world pivoting on never-ending bloodshed — an understanding of masculinity that they both render as a multifaceted, complex experience.
Landes and Giovannesi zero in on deranged kids struggling in a world with little parental control over them, but this doesn’t mean the eponymous Monos or the proto-mafia bosses fighting for a piece of Naples’ underworld exist independently of the grown-ups that lurk in their peripheries. Both Monos and Piranhas share a perceptive eye for the ways ostensibly adult-free worlds still shape their underage heroes. Watching Monos is to look at a squad of 15-year-old killing machines reproducing the power structures of a mysterious guerrilla movement (known solely as “The Organization”) that’s tasked them with looking after an American captive nicknamed “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson) and a milk cow by the sobriquet of “Shakira.” Marooned in a mountainous landscape of belittling immensity, a universe suspended between land and sky which Jasper Wolf’s cinematography captures with widescreens of spell-binding beauty, the Monos go by aliases that echo childhood memories and action films (Smurf, Boom Boom, Rambo), but the violence they wage against each other is no game. Intramural rules are strictly enforced, crimes are punished with utmost strength, and hierarchies ossify and become unmovable power structures.
Similarly, in Piranhas, the war that 15-year-old Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) wages to defend his home turf against a mafia clan extorting money from his mother’s laundromat is perhaps one of a teen over and against a grown-ups’ world, but the boy’s transformation into an underage boss is still largely influenced by the adults he de-thrones along the way. Based on La Paranza dei Bambini (literally, “The Children’s Parade”), the best-selling novel by Roberto Saviano, Piranhas could strike an uneducated audience as hardly credible, but Giovannesi’s drama is as close to reality as an ethnography may be. The teens Nicola rallies behind to the paean “let’s claim our turf back” venture into the Neapolitan underworld governed by the grown-ups around them with an awe-struck expression for a world that promises cheap thrills and endless adventures. Crucially, to become a man is to imitate the fearless adult bosses that fought over the same turf for years on end. Much like in the Monos’ quiet mountainous universe, the masculinities embraced by Nicola’s gang members are predicated on the notion of sheer might and the ability to use guns. But unlike Landes’ guerrilla children, who seem to look at weapons as mere means of survival, the kids populating Piranhas revere guns as cultural signifiers, with the kind of fetishism they treat luxury watches and clothing brands. Formulaic as it is in its rise-and-fall saga, it is in its excursions into the kid’s own representations of their unhinged lifestyles that Piranhas crafts some of its best material. To be able to afford entry into 500-a-table nightclubs, snort coke, pay for hookers, and kill rival gang members are all integral parts of the hyper-violent notions of manhood the kids happily embrace along the way. But their ascent to the rank of mafia soldiers only comes into being the moment the antics are portrayed on smartphones, and shared on social media. Here’s an aspect that the survivalist Monos, with its engrossing manhunts set in a reception-less wilderness, understandably misses out on. In Piranhas’ hyper-connected world, embracing a toxic masculinity anchored by violence and bloodshed is inextricably linked to a need to advertise it and make it public. The countless gun-wielding selfies Nicola and his mates take along the way respond to a specific function, that of reasserting their identities vis-à-vis peers and potential enemies.
But what kind of masculinities can sprout from the hyper-gruesome environments Landes and Giovannesi’s characters fight in? This is where Monos and Piranhas truly stand out as eye-opening examinations on violence as an identity-shaping force. Pitted against unforgiving terrains, Landes’ guerrilla fighters and Giovannesi’s mafia kids do not embrace resolutely heteronormative notions of manhood, but far more syncretic and porous identities.
In Monos, a curious sense of gender fluidity permeates the guerrilla group. “Here’s to my father who called me a whore,” shouts Perro (Paul Cubides), wielding an assault rifle while donning a mini-skirt and stockings. Moments later, captain Lobo (Julián Giraldo) dashes out of a makeshift barracks sporting a dress worn by Doctora; in an earlier moment of intramural effusion, he eagerly joins Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) and Lady (Karen Quintero) in a three-way make out session. In Piranhas, the inter-gang alliances make room for unexpected glimpses of bromance, Nicola and his gang mates kissing each other during moments of unbridled hubris for the newly acquired power and wealth. What’s striking about these snippets of homoerotic tension and gender syncretism is their peculiar matter-of-fact quality. Neither Landes, who penned Monos with Alexis Dos Santos, nor Giovannesi, who wrote Piranhas with Maurizio Braucci and Saviano himself, highlight them as exceptions to some codes or conducts, but playful moments the kids engage in without ever chastising each other for. Chuckles abound, and no judgements are passed. In these flickering moments, Monos and Piranhas veer into a surprising post-binary utopia. But the syncretism is short-lived.
As the Monos eventually leave the mountains to settle in the Colombian jungle, breaking down in the face of a fratricidal conflict, the group’s gender fluidity falls apart, too. Perro’s character arc is most illuminating in this respect: introduced as a flamboyant, happy-go-lucky troublemaker graced with an androgynous beauty, by the time the group starts to shatter — with Perro’s pivotal contribution — whatever feminine traits the young lad had exhibited in the saga’s early stages are wiped away in the face of mounting violence. Similarly, in Piranhas, the sporadic moments of same-sex tension between Nicola and fellow teen mobsters are just as tenuous as their inter-gang alliances. Homoerotic exchanges do surface in between the young thugs — but they are ultimately reined in by a vengeful environment that leaves very little space for affection.
Monos and Piranhas both open with war dances. In Giovannesi’s preamble, a horde of kids run around a Christmas tree seized from a rival gang’s turf, their topless torsos painted with ash, their mouths bellowing insults at their enemies; in Landes’, the Monos dance together, their bodies grinding against one another, their voices erupting into grave, ominous hums. They are scenes of haunting beauty from two directors who’ve been able to understand the way conflicts do not just claim lives, but produce modes of being that allow their brutality to continue untethered. But they are also, and herein lies their value, works that capture the toxic masculinities of their underage heroes as complex, porous identities, where gender syncretism teems with violence, but ultimately succumbs to it. And that, in a world where other entries in their genre often turn youth violence into a glamorous and uncritical spectacle, is no small feat.