The weeks leading up to Christmas Day a populated by Santa parades, madcap shopping, a rush to finish work, Christmas parties, Christmas songs and carols – religious and secular – and the odd nativity play or reenactment. All of these form what Jason Clark calls consumer liturgies that demand our attention while relegating religious and spiritual dimensions to consumer products and options (see link at bottom of post).
And in the background we find angels. Nice, safe Christmas angels who sing, shine light, and direct human beings in their parts in the nativity. Mystical figures who can be nicely accommodated in contemporary spiritualities, consumer or otherwise, with their white frocks, cardboard wings, and tinsel halos. Or angels who have been co-opted into spiritual products such as Kyle Gray’s Angels and Ancestors Oracle Cards.
These are the “nice” angels, and while they occupy a certain space within the consumer imagination and popular culture, there are the darker, more human angels who also sit alongside them in those spaces. Angels such as Castiel , Gabriel and Metatron in Supernatural; Bartleby and Loki in Dogma; Michael and Gabriel in Legion and its TV spinoff, Dominion; Aziraphale in Good Omens, or Remiel/Remy Chandler in Tom Sniegoski’s Apocalypse novels.
A couple of days after Christmas I got around to watching one of these ‘darker’ angel films, Gabriel (2007), that I’d had sitting on the shelf for ages. Gabriel is a low-budget, Australian film that is kind of supernatural-noir with angels and demons (technically fallen angels) competing for dominance over the territory of Purgatory – where human souls who have not yet been judged await their final destination. Purgatory is contested between the powers of light and dark, where fallen angels and archangels (‘arcs’) are sent to attempt to swing the city towards evil or good respectively. At the time Gabriel is sent, he is the last arc left and the powers of darkness have the upper hand.
The set-up is all very Manichean, with the contest between light (The Maker) and dark (the Dark Lord) seemingly equally balanced, and the darkness able to clearly resist the light. The creators claim to have attempted to a religious neutral or agnostic environment:
The reference to Heaven and Hell was added to the marketing campaign by Sony but still bears no effect on the actual story as we made a specific choice not to refer to any theology which would restrict the film to a specific religion.
However, the use of angelic names such as Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael and Michael, as well as fallen angel names such as Sammael, Asmodeus, Belial, and others like Lilith and Moloch clearly locates the story as drawing on Judeo-Christian traditions, although clumsily at times. (And I would have liked to have seen Lilith with red hair).
The cinematography is well-done given the budget constraints and reminded me particularly with its dark, almost black and white filming against green screens of other films like Renaissance (2006) and Sin City (2005). The creators claim inspiration from Blade Runner (1982), Highlander (1986) and The Crow (1994) and you can see glimpse of that, especially in the cityscape scenes. It also brought to mind a number of scenes from Spawn (1997).
Plotwise, the whole thing is fairly simple. “Heaven” and “Hell” send representatives to the territory of purgatory to attempt to control the human souls that enter there. Currently, the dark powers hold sway with all the agents of the light either dead, defeated or now fallen themselves. Gabriel is sent, the last hope, and futilely attempts to rally the defeated and fallen arcangels, and himself “falls” for a bit before returning to the light. There is the final climatic battle between a weakened Gabriel and a much more powerful Sammael (revealed to be Michael in disguise rebelling against Heaven), in which Gabriel “wins” by having the defeated Michael save Gabriel. Then light reenters Purgatory.
The film plays with similar tropes to the various forms of angel popular culture. Incarnated as human beings, the arcangels are caught up in human passions, weaknesses, pain and suffering, as well as hope and love again trotting out the theme that only human beings can truely live; You have echoes of Milton’s Paradise Lost, with Michael choosing to “reign in Purgatory rather than serve in Heaven”, as well as questions around God’s ineffable plans, free will, whether compassion can overcome evil, and theodicy thrown in for good measure. It’s all a little mixed-up, and doesn’t really deal with any in depth and the ending implies that to truely live one has to “fall” (choose one’s own destiny and reject any external authority in your life).
There were to be two sequels to the film to flesh all this out more, but nothing else ever emerged. The film does a lot with a little, but feels too close to films like Constantine (2005) and The Prophecy (1995) to really offer something original to the mix. Probably the closest thing I can think of which parallels it would be Tad Williams’ novel, The Dirty Streets of Heaven (2012).
I’ll work the film into the writing I’m doing at the moment on angels, but I won’t watch the film again for a while.
One of the next posts will be on some basic Christian angeology (angel theology).
See also: Clark, Jason. “Consumer Liturgies and Their Corrosive Effects on Christian Identity.” In Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging, edited by Kevin Corcoran, 39-57. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2011.