Storytellers craving triumph with severe stakes have commodified the trope of the young boxer from a marginalized background who overcomes his circumstances or validates his family’s legacy in a decisive fight. In his feature debut “Gabriel,” seasoned TV director Nuno Bernardo follows suit throwing a series of ordinary narrative jabs with the distinction of also denouncing pervasive anti-black racism in Portugal.
As soon as he lands at his aunt’s house in Lisbon from Cape Verde, Portugal’s former African island colony, teenager Gabriel (Igor Regalla) settles into a nearby boxing club and begins interrogating people about his father’s whereabouts. Dad was once a small legend with potential for greatness, and evidently groomed his cub forthe sport.
Bernardo intercuts Gabriel’s search with the paramount match, making use of his change in hairstyle from dreadlocks to buzz cut to signal each phase. Rivalry between the newcomer and macho local Rui (José Condessa), his final opponent, extends beyond the ring and into the dating arena — nothing unconventional in sight here. Well-choreographed moves and hooks deepen Regalla’s embodiment of a professional pugilist in the making.
Portuguese-language rap magnifies the ambience of inner city struggle the filmmaker is chasing, later replaced with victorious tunes as the foreseeable result of the confrontation approaches. Forgettable but not obnoxious, the movie’s workmanship mingles with Bernardo’s plot-hole-ridden screenplay, which leaves a possible rape up in the air and suggests Gabriel’s servitude to a stereotypical villain is bearable for a murky, but somewhat country-specific, outcome.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills