Tommy Guns (2022)
A year before three left-wing parties signed the 1975 Alvor Agreement, which granted Angola independence from Portugal, Portugal’s prime minister Marcelo Caetano contributed to the country’s colonial legacy in the National Assembly. He declared that “we must continue to protect populations whose desire is to remain Portuguese and continue to preserve a work of civilization built and maintained through the labor and grace of Portugal and which will endure only with Portugal.”1 The violent undertones of these remarks and Portugal’s past motivated filmmaker Carlos Conceição to interrogate Portugal’s exploitation of Angola’s predominantly Black population in his latest feature, Tommy Guns (2022).
The genre-bending war and B-horror flick utilizes the colonized as zombies haunting land occupiers in order to evoke the eternal hauntings of colonialism in Angola. It examines the last months of the Angolan War of Independence, following the fight for “overseas provinces,”2 Portugal’s then-designation of land before settling on today’s appellation “nation,” between the resisting denizens and the imperialist army. Besides the low-key lit opening frame lasering on the eyeballs of the white Corporal Zé (stunningly portrayed by João Arrais, often a staple of Conceiçao’s films) in the shadows, the remainder of the opening focuses on the locals.
We mainly see Tchissola, a tribal woman assisting her fellow community members, and a white nurse surviving from armed guerillas. Zé comes to Tchissola as she drinks water in the forest on her way to the nurse. They caress and cuddle in the woods for a moment as if they’re the last two people in this apocalyptic world. After they fornicate offscreen, Zé prays because his role models inform him that miscegenation is a sin and illegal during most of the colonial period in Brazil.3 Soon, he kills her with his HKG3 rifle pitilessly and the title card pops up in an homage to Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours (2002)—it is more an indicator of the interconnectedness of suffering than of a narrative’s turning point.
It is a troubling approach to begin the film on the province’s native people before they’re murdered and side-stepped in the first act’s summation. While Conceição acknowledges their existence and analyzes who owns this land, he reinforces the stereotype that Black people don’t live with joy. The hollowed structure allows us to attest to a progression of Angola’s history through the civilians’ establishment of the country’s civilization in its start, but the native people were the prey under Zé’s sight. The white patriarchal society confined and commodified them to operate in these survivalist circumstances.
In Tommy Guns, Conceição adapts the ghost story elements he played with in his feature-length debut Serpentarius (2019). This time, he blends tropes of war movies and zombie thrillers to evoke combat’s loneliness and preserve a barbaric history. Conceição’s use of multiple aesthetic styles simultaneously makes Tommy Guns seem like numerous films. The staggering arrival of supernatural imagery on top of warfare creates the film’s potential for a new entry into the boldly disruptive realm of political movies like the radical Pierrot le Fou (1965) and fearsome The Act of Killing (2012). Yet, the film lacks a connective tissue when Conceição misaligns dissimilar narrative illustrations with Zé’s destiny. Though astonishingly shot by Conceição’s longtime DP Vasco Viana, their camera and production decor create coherence while the narrative lacks it. His characters are determined, albeit too facile, for their obsession with having authority. They soon discover how obtaining power comes with a cost. The spectral presence of the colonized looms over the militarized ensemble, hauntingly harkening to Charles Dickens’s thoughts on the ghost story.
In his review of The Night Side of Nature (1848), Dickens wrote “all mankind’s experience of them is, that their alleged appearances have been … known to be delusions superintended by a well-understood, and by no means uncommon disease.” Though this claim is banal within the ghost story canon, it does apply to the case of Tommy Guns. Within Dickens’s philosophy, the film acknowledges how ethnic cleansing affects one’s well-being and reincarnates the displaced, deceased Black Angolans. Conceição gestures to the idea that colonialism is a mental health issue that mortifies people’s brains after experiencing either side of genocide. It affects the oppressed’s mentalities while living in a vicious world, and perpetrators recognize the harm they enacted and their guilt. Zé, who was promoted to sergeant after killing chef Prata on the colonel’s orders, has nightmares about and visions of zombies once he moves into the deceased chef’s former room. Earlier in the film, the awakened Prata warns Zé that “the world is not what you see.” He reminds Zé of the trauma he inflicts not only on his country but also on himself. He can’t ignore the suffering he has initiated and must grapple with the consequences. Conceição’s alterations between (psychological and zombie) thrillers and war films conjure a dysfunctional malaise in the Angolan War’s dark annals.
Zé is not a materialistic, boastful dude showing off his accolades. His biggest wish is to see his mother for the first time in several years. The leadership perceives his request for a leave as a “considerable loss” to Portugal’s expanded control over Angola and as a permanent farewell instead of a short-term break. Zé nimbly unveils his love’s fragility when they reject his wish. He wants to be known as a human rather than as a puppet. However, Zé only remembers his mother for her height and hair color and has no profound memory of how she raised him.
Though the visual roller coaster garners intriguing callbacks in its slow pacing, Conceição doesn’t dignify his female characters concretely. The village’s women and the nurse are nurturers to children and men. Though Tchissola and the prostitute Apolónia lead some of the story’s subsequent chapters, they give sexual pleasure to the male characters, reflecting Angola’s rigidity towards traditional gender roles.
The pop-ups of new features (e.g. the late entrance of Apolónia and uneven transitions from psychological to zombie thrillers) subsidize Conceição’s unbalanced paradigm of mashing elements that don’t provoke fear. The feeling of being cursed does not merge with the established warlike, patriotic tone Conceição initiated in this opus. While he does not want to box the film into a few descriptors, he needed to work with one genre’s formula to make something palpable for character arc and a broader audience. Indeed, he wrote it with free reign and no restraints. He drops-ship a perplexing film where different genres do not enhance his characters’ moods, unlike the drastic shift from dark comedy to horror as seen in the shape-shifting Parasite (2019) and Get Out (2017). Conceição’s weaving of endeavors into new storytelling principality makes people and characters obliterate the film’s logic and warns others not to suspend their disbelief too much.
- “Linha de rumo para o Ultramar,” speech presented to the National Assembly, Lisbon, 5 March 1974. Reprinted in Notícias de Portugal, no. 1401 (9 March)
- Bender, Gerald J., 2004, Angola Under the Portuguese: The Myth and the Reality. Africa World Press.
- Boxer, C.R., 1963, Race Relations in the Portuguese Colonial Empire: 1415-1825. Oxford University Press.