Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Apr 17, 2023 7:16 pm 
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A GATHERING OF NATIVE RECRUITS WHO CANNOT ESCAPE THEIR COMPOUND

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A genre-bending attack on white colonialism in Angola

Tommy Guns is one of those offbeat dazzlers that come up now and then in Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films series; and it previously showed at Locarno. Its original title drawn from Portugal's national anthem is Nação Valente, literally "Valiant Nation." This powerful, audacious and enigmatic film invokes the ghosts of Angola’s colonial past while embracing the symbolic power of genre filmmaking. It provides is a stimulating sequence of scenes, just unrelated enough to surprise and original enough to provoke..

The story begins in 1974, a year before the country’s independence from decades of Portuguese rule. Wealthy colonists are fleeing the country as Angolan "native" revolutionaries gradually claim their land back. A tribal girl, Tchissola (Ulé Baldé, pictured), speaking only the Nyaneka language, discovers love and danger when her path crosses that of a white Portuguese soldier. Crosses, indeed. They appear to make love, then he pulls out his Tommy gun and kills her. (These sequences and this subject have prompted comparisons with Claire Denis's White Material and both directors lived in colonial Africa till age twelve and have dealt with colonialism knowingly in several film.)

Another group of soldiers, very young, barely teenagers, and completely cut off from the outside world, blindly follow the brutal orders of their commander in the name of serving their country. We spend much more time with them, and it's stimulating partly because its implausible. First of all, why only seven young men? Why are they so ridiculously good-looking, oddly varied? Why does each one have a different hair style - Black kid with big natural; blond with floppy frizz, short kid with long locks, regular guy with a Mohawk, and so on? Nonetheless this crew is used arrestingly: Conceição makes every second count, and however serious his intent, he never forgets to have fun.

The short, shaved-headed "colonel" who's their martinet commander comes and goes, barking orders. Finally there is a fracas and the gun is pulled, and voilà! no more colonel. All focus is now on burying him, out in the yard. A woman who was brought in to "entertain" the troops leads to the revelation that they may be virgins who were kidnapped and brought here as children. A high wall surrounds them and they don't know the way out.

Plainly Carlos Conceição is freely winging it, and playing for wide-ranging implications. This is the pleasure of the piece, the sense that, however conventional a portrait of colonialism it appears at first, the film is all highly conceptual, almost more a work of art than a specific political statement. It hints at the horror genre from early on; toward the end the dead come back and it becomes a kind of zombie movie, while never losing its deadly serious beady eye on the catastrophe of white colonialism in Africa.

The film has been remarked upon as a "genre-shifting cinematic puzzle" that "playfully swerves from art house drama to war film to zombie flick to escape thriller with exhilarating control." Whether or not this is self-conscious hardly matters since the sui generis result works seamlessly on its own terms. Comparisons with Claire Denis, Miguel Gomes, and even M. Night Shyamalan may be a bit wide of the mark and we should instead simply say this is a promising, provocative work and Conceição a bold and experimental new talent. With good reason Kiang in her review for the BFI's Sight and Sound called this film "stunning" and "audacious," Guy Lodge in Variety described it as a "horror-tinged nightmare" that "nods to the sprawling impact of colonialism across eras," and Neil Young, writing for Screen called it "blazingly confident" and praised its juggling of "arthouse and genre tropes with persuasive dexterity."

Conceição, now in his early forties, was born in Angola and has moved back and forth between there and Lisbon ever since studying and making art and movies. This is his second feature.

Tommy Guns/]Nação Valente, 118 mins. while the director's first feature Serpentario was launched at the Berlinale this one debuted at Locarno Aug. 5, 2022, selected as Best European Film and receiving the Youth Jury Award. It was also featured in Lincoln center's Mar. 2023 New Directors/New Films series. Kino Lorber releases Tommy Guns, which opened last week at BAM Rose Cinemas in New York and is releasing to select theaters nationwide, also coming on DVD and Blu-ray in June. In view of the rave pull-quotes from well known critics, we should expect a good Metascore.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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