Athena is a magic trick. There is no other way to describe it. For 90 minutes, she grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. She has you submit to being thrown violently from one scene to the next, all the while aware that you’re strapped into a chaos vehicle, heading toward the edge of a cliff. It’s a Greek tragedy, a biblical brotherhood drama, and the most ostentatiously directed action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road.
Such is the level of technical skill on display here that even the Corridor Crew will be amazed at how director Romain Gavras, son of the legendary Costa-Gavras, managed to pull off some of the sequences.
Set over a day and night on a Paris council estate, a banlieue if you will, the film traces the immediate aftermath of a child’s death at the hands of the police. The child’s adult siblings find themselves on both sides of the ideological divide. Abdel, the oldest, is a war hero. But in the eyes of his younger brother, Karim, he is nothing but a traitor. Karim has become something of a messiah figure amid protests that have erupted across France in retaliation for the death of his brother. Abdel should have died, he says in a scene of tense confrontation, unable to repress his contempt for the men in uniform.
The movie opens with the most impressive opening sequence this side of Pieces of a Woman. Karim watches silently as Abdel gives a press conference assuring the media and the public that the authorities are doing everything they can to determine who killed the boy, his brother, and bring him to justice. Karim is not buying a single word. “Vive la révolution,” his eyes scream, as he silently lights a Molotov cocktail and throws it onto the stage, lighting the fuse for the utter anarchy that will follow.
As protesters storm the police station and proceed to wreak havoc, the camera follows Karim from corridor to corridor, through a sea of angry men, until he finally manages to emerge armed with an arsenal of police weapons that he intends to to steal using against them. Gavras does not cut. He tracks Karim into a getaway van, pulls away to include other fleeing protesters wheelieing their dirt bikes, and follows the convoy back to the banlieue. It’s expertly choreographed mayhem that somehow manages to introduce important character moments, pivotal plot beats, and crucial context.
When Gavras finally cuts, after more than 10 minutes of the most immersive action footage you’re likely to see this year, you look at the Netflix logo and ask yourself two questions: man, how awesome would this have been on the big screen, and how heck Gavras is going to maintain this level of intensity for another 80 minutes?
Turns out he can. Gavras does this by stitching the film together with about half a dozen other sequences along the first 10 minutes. Unlike director Ali Abbas Zafar, whose recent film Jogui shares several thematic overlays with this one, Gavras doesn’t allow himself to be distracted. There are no unnecessary flashbacks, no pointless distractions. And yet the family drama is powerful, more powerful than anything in Jogi.
Athena is such an immersive experience that you often forget you’re watching a movie, despite the surprisingly cinematic visuals. Gavras and his cinematographer, the film’s MVP, Matias Boucard, conjure up images that will burn into your mind. Particularly disturbing is the sight of a lone man tending his garden as violence erupts all around him; and the final shot of the film, which I won’t spoil here.
Co-written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar, and filmmaker Ladj Ly (whose 2019 film Les Misérables tackles similar thematic terrain), Athena functions almost as the third act of a larger story; a cautionary tale about the inevitable anarchy that begins after all other options have been exhausted. We don’t need to know the details of the events that led up to this moment, because the film relies on immediate sympathy from its audience. Athena couldn’t care less about those who have to be convinced.
But this is also where the film begins to push the boundaries of good taste. At times, it’s as if Gavras’s film doesn’t just renounce violence, but actively encourages it. My main complaint about Jogi was that it was too timid a film to be privileged to tackle such sensitive issues as the oppression of minorities and the banality of evil. Athena is the opposite. It’s an uncompromising and often uncomfortable look at police brutality and racial segregation. Gavras’ take-no-prisoners filmmaking attitude certainly won’t win him new friends, though it could (and should) earn him an Academy Award nomination.
Director – Romain Gavras
To emit – Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, Alexis Maneti
Classification – 4.5/5