Tommy Guns: a stunning second feature from Carlos Conceição

This uncompromising film, with its startling command of tone and its consistently arresting imagery, is both a brutal investigation of colonialism and a parable of despair of war itself.

Tommy Guns (2022)
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Locarno Film Festival.

The Portuguese title of Carlos Conceição’s stunning, serpentine second feature, Nação Valente, translates literally to ‘Valiant Nation’. It is lifted from the lyrics of Portugal’s anthem which, like those of many other nations, summons its bombastic patriotism from a rhetoric of cannons and calls to arms. It suits the ostensible themes of a film set in Portuguese-occupied Angola and designed as a multi-stranded, microcosmic, brutally uncompromising investigation of colonialism.

But Conceição’s film rapidly morphs into something even more unsettling, fusing genres and moods with a brooding, belligerent confidence that belies the director’s relative inexperience. As the movie slow-somersaults though its shifting narrative, and socio-historical critique gives way to horror-inflected, perversion-of-innocence fable, it emerges that while ‘Valiant Nation’ is a good title for the film it initially appears to be, ‘Tommy Guns’, with its paradoxical connotations of lethal weaponry and little-boys-at-play, is a great title for the film it actually is.

It is 1974, the year before Angola gained independence. The three characters we first meet – a white missionary nun (Leonor Silveira), her helper-girl Tchissola (Ule Balde) from the local tribe, and a young Portuguese soldier (Silvio Vieira) – cannot know what lies ahead, but the air is pregnant with unease, swampy and pressurised like a held breath. Our sympathies soon switch around. The nun patronises Tchissola, but then is terrorised by a gang of local bandits, who turn out not to harbour murderous intent. Tchissola, who in a blunter film might have been a condescendingly exotic symbol of Indigenous nobility, is shown to be a typical teen, rolling her eyes huffily at a tribal funerary ritual and ducking out as soon as she can. Meanwhile the soldier reads Horace in the shade of a tree, ignoring a machine-gun skirmish happening nearby.

The contrast between the ululating tribespeople honouring their dead and the rangy military men rifling through the pockets of a fallen comrade is an eloquent comment all by itself. So when the sensitive, classics-reading soldier encounters Tschissola in the forest and their mutual attraction leads to sex, we’re primed to read it as an act of optimism: two apparent outsiders from their own kind finding love across racial, political and social divides. Then he shoots her dead.

It is at this point that the film’s title appears. With it, the action shifts to another group of Portuguese soldiers, whose relationship to the earlier unit is teased out in a series of revelations that go off almost undetected, like depth charges, before bubbling to the film’s oily, black surface a long time later. These soldiers, all but undifferentiated and presenting a choral image of callow, lean, handsome young manhood, are led in gruelling drills by a Nosferatu-bald martinet of a colonel (Gustavo Sumpta). As his treatment of them becomes more bizarre, the style becomes more formally striking – witness the Caravaggian layout when the eight of them painstakingly divide a single tiny toffee dispensed by the colonel as a treat. Something is very wrong here – a sharper, more specific wrong than the general malaise of colonialism in its genocidal death throes.

Like many bad dreams, Tommy Guns draws part of its power from the seductive beauty of its imagery. And that painterly use of light, which falls in diagonal daggers across a bed or streams in through a grimy window, within a palette attuned to the seething, sinister qualities of darkness, makes DoP Vasco Viana a co-conspirator in the film’s uncanny allure. There is a Beau Travail-esque alertness to male beauty as well as to the moral uncertainty and psychological decay that can ripple beneath a tanned, taut, camo-clad torso. And sometimes an allegorical pose or a half-lit face backgrounded against tarry, tactile blacks and blues will land as though the spirit of Pedro Costa himself were suddenly looming out of the frame.

Given the arthouse formalism, the embrace of genre (in this case, horror and thriller) is audacious, especially during a final, world-upending reveal that would be unnecessarily outlandish if Conceição did not maintain such a death-grip on tone. Instead, this final twist, once the shock wears off, expands the film’s reach in ways that continue to burrow in the brain long after. It renders the story as no longer simply about Portugal and Angola, nor merely about the evil legacy of colonialism in general. Instead, Tommy Guns builds, strangely, sneakily, to a parable of despair at the (predominantly masculine) mass delusion that is war itself, and to a sly, angry lament for how the propagation of a war mentality makes victims of so many, madmen of a few, and irrevocably hoodwinked fools of everyone else.