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DIRECTED BY: Carlos Conceição
FEATURING: João Arrais, Gustavo Sumpta, Anabela Moreira
PLOT: A group of Portuguese soldiers living an isolated existence find themselves haunted by Angolan ghosts.
COMMENTS: It’s difficult to discuss Tommy Guns‘ plot for fear of giving too much away. It’s not the appearance of ghosts/zombies near the end of the film that causes an issue; there is another, even less expected third act twist to contend with. We’re safe in saying that the film opens in Angola in 1974, one year before it gained independence from Portugal, as a title card announces that fact in the first minute. The movie then proceeds with what is—slight spoiler here—a thirty minute prologue showing the death of an innocent victim of the ongoing violence, a burial in which an elder warns that the corpse’s spirit will rest uneasily, and an odd riverbank encounter between a lone Portuguese soldier and a local woman that ends with him eating her necklace.
Afterwards, we switch focus to a group of young Portuguese soldiers, a company of eight men led by a strict and ruthless Colonel, who spend their days in some remote outpost doing not much of anything. The film was leisurely, yet confusing, throughout the prologue; it slows down even further in this segment. Although the troop chases, and catches, a traitor, and there is one brief ghastly apparition, relatively little happens throughout the middle of the film: it’s an accurate depiction of the drudgery of military life, endless training and waiting and little action. Things finally heat up when the Colonel decides to import a stripper for the restless (and horny) young men, leading to a third act payoff that’s fairly satisfying. Connections to the opening are ambiguous, but potentially meaningful (a quote from Horace could be significant).
Conceição’s film, only his second feature length effort, is ambitiously structured and deals with Portuguese colonialism in a way that will be most meaningful to those well-versed in this history. The writer/director was born in Angola during the conflict detailed here, moved to Portugal as a teenager, and has traveled back and forth between the two countries since, so this particular slice of colonial history holds personal significance to him. Many events are symbolic: I suspect the encounter between the soldier and the Angolan native represents Portugal’s treatment of her colony, and the idea of the dead returning to trouble the living has obvious significance. Nonetheless, the movie’s awkward pacing makes it difficult for the director’s ideas to penetrate the malaise: little happens for long stretches, causing your mind to wander. Some characters (like the white nun from the opening) are superfluous, mere local color; more economical storytelling would have helped the message land harder. Some critics have complained about the disjointed nature of the script, but the film doesn’t really switch genres as violently as advertised; the early war drama and the later zombie element feel of the same somber piece. In fact, despite the appearance of the walking dead, it would be difficult to categorize the film as “horror” in any meaningful sense: it seldom strays from the path of magical realism it sets for itself. The resulting experiment feels weighty and worthwhile, but, unfortunately, not always engaging.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: