Gabriel – Film Review

Cape Verde is one of those destinations that still features on my travel list and it is where the eponymous protagonist, Gabriel, is from. Gabriel arrives in Lisbon to start a new life and in other films this would probably have been the opening scene. But in this film such information about the titular character is gleaned in a piecemeal manner. Non-linear in its structure, Gabriel’s journey is revealed through a series of flashbacks and flash forwards which certainly requires its audience to stay alert!

Whilst boxing is a feature within the film, it is ultimately not the only focus as unfortunately Gabriel is unwittingly drawn into a world where violence and blackmail are the main currencies. That is not to say that this film concentrates on the underground criminal aspects but the impact of its presence means that criminality infiltrates other worlds in Gabriel’s life.

The boxing club in Gabriel
The boxing club in Gabriel

Fortunately Gabriel, as a film, avoids the usual stereotypes for films involving a male teenager of African descent however, I did find the use of racial slurs within the film to be unsettling. In this respect, the film does serve to highlight the plight of various communities of immigrants; it is set within one of Lisbon’s toughest neighbourhoods, Olivais, and also underlines the city’s relationship with the elderly through a depiction of elderly homeless men isolated on the streets.

We are not shown the pretty, touristic parts of Lisbon but are instead privy to scenes illustrating residential life on estates, with high rise blocks of flats, and its underbelly. The lighting throughout most of the film is naturalistic but sombre and therefore reflective of those disadvantaged environs with the odd glimpses of neon lights from shop fronts. We are drawn into the realities of Gabriel’s world further by the use of rap and hip hop music as diegetic sound initially heard through Gabriel’s headphones, which is very effective. Such pulsating music eventually overwhelms the scenes as non-diegetic sound and I especially enjoyed the ambience created by the superb soundtrack. The editing at such moments is extremely impressive.

For Gabriel, the boxing is an escape from his reality however it also becomes a source of income as history starts to repeat itself, his father was a boxing champion. Such information is extracted from insights provided by other characters as his father is not present initially and we later learn of Gabriel’s mother’s status.

The film does avoid succumbing to the absentee father trope, however, as Gabriel is well-rounded, lives with his aunt but is ultimately seeking someone and something better. Therefore the film’s tone retains that sense of hope and purpose throughout. A few twists in the film’s structure certainly deliver that shock factor and create a level of ambiguity in determining which characters may be paragons for good or else negative influences as virtually every character seems to be harbouring a secret!

Director Nuno Bernardo, largely confines the violence to the boxing ring which also becomes a forum for resolving rivalries. However, disturbingly, there are also hints that off screen violence towards women has occurred. For the most part, the camera stays with Gabriel with close ups and tracking shots and his hair length is the device used to determine whether we are viewing future scenes or flashbacks.

Igor Regalla as Gabriel in the boxing ring
Igor Regalla as Gabriel in the boxing ring

The surrounding characters however are not as well fleshed out and so there is the caricature gangster boss and the love interest. On the other hand, I truly appreciated the level of focus on his positive familial relationships with his aunt and cousin. There are certainly some heartbreaking moments within Gabriel’s quest, without revealing any spoilers, and so the film’s narrative will take you through the highs and the lows with some emotional punches.

Offering a social and political commentary, the film Gabriel does not spoon-feed its audience much to Bernardo’s credit. There is even a moment where one character in a medical institution wryly comments that some of the city’s elderly are left to languish by the streets but others are treated by social care. We are presented with further striking images highlighting this reality within such an impoverished community.

Even if you may not be a boxing fan, the film will appeal to many given its emotional emphasis. Gabriel leaves its audience with an open ended finish with a bittersweet but triumphant denouement where mesmerising beach shots at sunset with crashing waves are later observed. The question arises as to whether such positive portrayal may in fact just be a dream sequence given the preceding events; however, as the audience, we are never entirely certain as to the precise chronology of Gabriel’s narrative. Fortunately, this does not seem to matter as the central performance by Igor Regalla as Gabriel is very captivating and will certainly keep you mesmerised until the finale.

You can view the trailer for Gabriel here

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