Portugal’s colonial past in Africa continues to haunt some of the country’s most vital and subversive filmmakers. With his remarkable second feature “Tommy Guns,” Angolan-Portuguese director Carlos Conceição’s steps into the same precarious territory sometimes occupied by Pedro Costa and Miguel Gomes — borrowing, perhaps, a measure of the former’s visceral austerity and the latter’s shape-shifting playfulness, but mostly proving his own sly, supple talent. Formally and structurally audacious in ways that build in power and meaning as the film unfolds, this study of a Portuguese military squad gradually unraveling in a remote, bloodied wilderness begins with a clear sense of time, place and space, before collapsing those certainties in a horror-tinged nightmare that nods to the sprawling impact of colonialism across eras.
That brush of genre influence — comparable, in its subtle, dimension-twisting fluidity, to Mati Diop’s recent “Atlantics” — ought to heighten interest around “Tommy Guns” as it makes its way through the festival circuit, following a premiere in Locarno’s main competition. Discerning distributors undeterred by the film’s stark violence and knotted thematic complexity would do well to play up its more puzzle-like qualities. If it’s unlikely to be an arthouse phenomenon, any acquisitions should be considered an investment in an ambitious filmmaker with the potential to be a mainstay in top-league fest lineups; “Tommy Guns” already represents a significant advance on Conceição’s Berlin-premiered 2019 debut “Serpentarius,” expanding on its sense of of continent-crossing political and spiritual unrest.
The film’s opening act promises a rather more straightforward wartime drama than the one we ultimately get, even if the deep, serpentine shadows of Vasco Viana’s ace lensing — countered by flashes of saturated stained-glass color — hint at stranger, more stylized possibilities to come. It is 1974 in rural Angola, and Portugal’s 400-year colonization of the southwestern African country is drawing to an anxious, hostile close. Conceição charts the settlers’ destabilized status in the country through the growing peril faced by a white female missionary, eventually evicted from her home by Black revolutionaries, though the film’s perspective remains aloof and impartial.
There’s more palpable empathy, chased by a jolt of shock and revulsion, when the film zeroes in on local tribespeople maintaining their everyday routine amid the tumult. One of them, a teenage girl, meets a young Portuguese soldier in the forest for a nighttime sexual tryst, only for him to shoot her dead with one of the eponymous submachine guns — not the last time we’ll see one used for an ugly incident of racial violence. Cue the film’s title credit, nearly half an hour into proceedings. Its tardiness may seem an artsy affectation, but it proves a useful partition, as “Tommy Guns” subsequently shifts its focus to a different set of characters in a more ambiguously defined environment.
Enter a new Portuguese troop of callow, barely adult soldiers, occupying a seemingly remote camp under the gruff, unforgiving command of a stocky, shaven-headed colonel (Gustavo Sumpta). That these recruits all look strikingly runway-ready, with hip, luxuriant hairdos that surely wouldn’t pass most military inspections, is perhaps our first clue that we’ve tilted into another distorted reality. It’s not at all clear what the unit’s mission is, while their commander seems determined to find enemies within his own ranks. One supposedly traitorous soldier — also Black — is ordered to be executed by his nervous, boyish, anachronistically mohawked mate Ze (João Arrais), who glumly resists the praise then lavished on him by superiors.
Order disintegrates further when the colonel hires recalcitrant sex worker Apolonia (Anabela Moreira, vamping splendidly in the film’s most comically drawn role) to deflower his recruits, and virtually nothing goes to plan — save, maybe, for the vengeance of the slain, upon which “Tommy Guns” spirals into B-movie horror, rug-pulling head-trip and straight-up escape thriller, albeit one in which the safe spaces aren’t quite what, or where, you might think. That’s a lot of genre pivoting to manage in a short space of time, yet thanks to the vividness of its image-making and the gutsy precision of its rhythmic lurches, “Tommy Guns” never succumbs to the risk of silliness or incoherence: The further it careers from realism, the more focused and furious its political conscience appears.
Outlining a world in which the mentality of colonial rule doesn’t end with the handover of power — and where the granting of autonomy to the oppressed doesn’t end their need for rebellion — Conceição’s pointed, upsetting and darkly funny film winds up delivering a globally applicable history lesson, without skimping on the specific moral and historical contours of Portugal’s debt to Africa. “On the day you deserve it, you will find rest,” one victim says here to his executioner: The emotions and ideas racing through “Tommy Guns” couldn’t be more aptly restless.
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