Tommy Guns (Nacao Valente)
Dir. Carlos Conceicao (2022)
A group of Portuguese soldiers must face the consequences of colonialism.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Director Carlos Conceicao’s new film Tommy Guns examines this concept through the perspective of a group of Portuguese soldiers in the closing days of the fight against Angolan independence. The film opens with a gorgeously shot vignette within a small Angolan village, wherein a young man dies, a funeral is held, and the mourners must live within the society that remains. One of the mourners, a teenager named Tchissola (Ule Balde), is no different from an American teenager in modern day: she doesn’t understand, nor does she care, about the village’s funeral traditions, instead choosing to travel through the jungle to search for food. Along the way, she runs across a young, handsome Portuguese soldier, and their mutual attraction culminates in a quick sexual tryst. Afterwards, the soldier shoots and kills Tchissola, further emphasizing the brutality and unflinching psychopathy of the people who wield the guns. The hopeless nihilism does not get any better afterwards, and the scene quickly changes to follow a group of soldiers stationed behind an enormous wall that separates them from the rest of the country and their violent, dictator-like commanding officer.
Through the story of these soldiers, Conceicao creates a meandering portrait of the futility and everlasting nature of war, colonialism, and nationalism. The film is overly long, running right at two hours, but that, in and of itself, is a perfect representation of the point at hand. These young soldiers have never known anything but the preparation for battle, their lives an unending chasm of target practice, physical activity, and indoctrination. When one of the soldiers, Ze (Joao Arrais), is commanded to kill the company cook Prata (Meirinho Mendes), he does so without questioning his orders. But be sure, your sins will find you out, and when the company commander (Gustavo Sumpta) brings a sex worker (Anabela Moreira) to the camp to entertain his men, the hopeless situation becomes just a little bit worse. Then a lot worse. And then even worse than that, somehow.
Conceicao borrows heavily from other films, the inspiration part Apocalypse Now and part Shyamalan at times. What he has created with Tommy Guns, however, is something entirely new and timeless in equal parts. While soldiers die from one generation to the next, war itself is immortal. There will never be a time without war, and the old wounds of previous conflicts never truly fade away. Their effects reverberate across generations, each new cohort burdened by the scars of all of their ancestors. By depicting this conceptual framework in such a beautifully shot film, Conceicao delivers a film that is as hard to watch as it is to truly comprehend. You could study war and its consequences for a million years and never truly reach the depths of its meaning and impact on the world around it. It is equal parts insane and unsurprising that this particular conflict, the liberation of a country whose colonial roots stretch back hundreds of years, culminated in 1970, no doubt within the lifetime of some of the people who will read this review. That’s just indescribably insane.
We all must face the consequences of our actions, no doubt. The consequences of our ancestors’, whose faults were no doubt more uninformed, prejudiced, and nefarious than our own, still effect those of us around today. The bruises and lacerations of colonialism, racism, and the grinding gears of international capitalism have left a soil bloodier than the Biblical Red Sea, an entire modern history of slavery, subjugation, and brutality of a people not so unlike our own. This consistent, and constant, view of people who live far away as “other” has dictated political and social understanding for the last several hundred years (and perhaps even further.) To see these events and this attitude depicted in a film so brutally disturbing is eye-opening, and while Conceicao doesn’t make a film that quite fits the definition of horror, it is nonetheless horrific and impactful, a film that yearns to be seen.
Who this movie is for: War movie fans, Socially conscious movie lovers, USO strippers
Bottom line: It may not find its audience with the folks who would normally read what I write, but it’s a film that well deserves the acclaim it has been receiving on the festival circuit. If you get the chance, check it out. Just make sure you check your horror hat at the door. There are definitely some horror influences and imagery within, but director Carlos Conceicao has created a “war” movie that is about so much more than that. A truly devastating film about the infinite nature and the incalculable cost of war, hatred, and colonialism