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Tabula Rasa


Directed by Shane Abbess (2007)

Reviewed by Kyla Ward

Uriel: Just because I'm a fucking angel doesn't mean I can't smoke.

Gabriel posterAngels. Some fall into cheap vices and ennui. Others land, if not precisely on their feet, then with berretta in hand and mission in mind. Such is Gabriel, last of the arcangels to enter Purgatory to battle for our souls.

Purgatory is the realm between the two cosmic Sources, way station for souls wavering between light and darkness. The rules of engagement are strict: an 'Arc' and a Fallen — the demons led by Sammael — may enter at yearly intervals but only leave once the entirety of the opposition has been annihilated. They assume human bodies, with their susceptibility to pain and pleasure, anger and sorrow, fear and desire. No prize for guessing which side has adapted better. Uriel is mad, Amitiel is lost, Raphael is dying and no one knows what happened to Michael. The crumbling city has been plunged into continual night.

And what a luscious piece of urban gothic it is! Decaying warehouses, rain-veiled alleys, the Funhouse and the desert fringes: each vista is a haunted no-man's land through which the characters move as through a dream. Angels incarnate can move as quick as thought, while mortal souls crawl by in torturous slowness. Perceptions bend and twist; the fight sequences in particular are hallucinatory, as Gabriel works his way through friends and enemies towards the final confrontation with Sammael. There is more than a touch of noir to the storyline, as well as the look.

This story is more complex than at first appears and bears a heavy symbolic weight. There are issue of free will at stake, of good and evil and sacrifice. In the hands of a writer/director less tasteful and controlled than Shane Abbess, it could all have gotten very silly. Instead, it approaches myth; again, like good film noir. At the same time as a quest for the light, it treats the emergence of Gabriel the person from Gabriel the angel, which makes for quite the character arc, as it were. Thank goodness Andy Whitfield has the depth and delicacy to carry it off, as well as a definite charm.

Uriel, Raphael and the rest are all deftly sketched. But it is the Fallen who really crackle across the screen, especially Michael Piccirilli as Asmodeus and Dwaine Stevenson in the crucial role of Sammael. I like a conflicted, charismatic villain in a black leather jacket even more than a hero, especially with those eyes. Windows to the soul and such. Of course, some viewers may prefer Samantha Noble's daintily gothic turn as Amitiel/Jade.

This is Abbess's first feature, rising on a solid foundation of ads, music videos and shorts (one of which I note is titled Noir). The story of the film's completely independent production takes on mythic dimensions itself, which have been covered copiously elsewhere. Most of the actors have a background in Australian television, although for some it is their first outing — for example, Matt Hylton Todd, who plays Ithuriel and was Abbess's co-writer. Interestingly, two of the Fallen plus Samantha Noble have credits on Nailed (dir. Gabriel Dowrick, 2007), which appears to be a very strange zombie flick.

The music deserves a special mention. Although it comprises one of the few heavy-handed things about the film, it's good stuff. Heavy beats, angelic choruses and rumbling synth courtesy of Sydneysider Brian Cachia. For a taste, the official website plays it constantly.

Overall, this is a stylish film I thoroughly enjoyed. More international, indeed cosmological in tone, perhaps, than anything distinctively Oz-tralian, unless that's what's betokened by the sheer craft and solidity of the piece. It is ironic how the quest for light goes through so much vastly attractive darkness. But that, of course, is the dilemma that Gabriel must ultimately resolve. Be sure to sit through the closing credits, if you are in any doubt as to the meaning of the end.


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