Athena is a magic trick. There’s no other way to describe it. For 90 minutes, it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It makes you submit yourself to being hurled violently from one scene to the next, keenly aware the entire time that you’re strapped to a vehicle of chaos, headed towards the edge of a cliff. It’s a Greek tragedy, a Biblical drama about brotherhood, and the most flashily directed action film since Mad Max: Fury Road.
Such is the level of technical skill on display here that even the Corridor Crew will be bamboozled by how director Romain Gavras — son of the legendary Costa-Gavras — managed to pull off some of the sequences.
Set across one day and night in 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 boy’s adult brothers find themselves on either side of the ideological divide. Abdel, the elder one, is a war hero. But in his younger brother Karim’s eyes, he’s nothing but a traitor. Karim has become something of a messiah figure amid the protests that have erupted across France in retaliation for his brother’s death. Abdel should’ve been the one who died, he says in a tense confrontation scene, unable to clamp down on his contempt for men in uniform.
The film begins with the most stunning opening sequence this side of Pieces of a Woman. Karim watches silently as Abdel delivers a press conference assuring the media and the public that the authorities are doing everything in their power to determine who killed the boy — their brother — and bring them to justice. Karim isn’t buying a single word. “Vive la révolution,” his eyes scream, as he silently lights a Molotov cocktail and hurls it at the stage, lighting the fuse for the absolute anarchy to follow.
As the protestors storm the police station and proceed to wreak havoc, the camera follows Karim from hallway to hallway, through a sea of angry men, as he finally makes his way out, armed with an arsenal of the cops’ weapons that he intends on using against them. Gavras doesn’t cut. He tracks Karim inside a getaway van, pans out to include other fleeing protesters performing wheelies on their dirt bikes, and follows the convoy back to the banlieue. It’s expertly choreographed chaos that somehow manages to squeeze in important character moments, pivotal plot beats, and crucial context.
When Gavras finally cuts, after more than 10 minutes of the most immersive action filmmaking you’re likely to see this year, you glance at the Netflix logo and ask yourself two questions: man, how incredible would this have been on the big screen, and how in the world is Gavras going to sustain this level of intensity for 80 more minutes?
As it turns out, he can. Gavras does this by stitching the film together with around half-a-dozen more sequences on par with those opening 10 minutes. Unlike director Ali Abbas Zafar, whose recent film Jogi shares several thematic overlaps with this one, Gavras doesn’t allow himself to be distracted. There are no unnecessary flashbacks, no pointless diversions. And yet, the family drama is potent, more potent than anything in Jogi.
Athena is such an immersive experience that you often forget that you’re even watching a film at all, despite the strikingly cinematic visuals. Gavras and his cinematographer — the film’s MVP Matias Boucard — conjure images that will burn themselves in your mind’s eye. Particularly haunting is the sight of a lone man, tending to his garden while violence erupts around him; and the film’s final shot, which I won’t spoil here.
Co-written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar and the filmmaker Ladj Ly (whose 2019 film Les Misérables tread similar thematic ground) Athena functions almost like the third act of a larger story; a cautionary tale about inevitable anarchy that begins after all other options have been exhausted. We don’t need to know the details of the events that led us to this moment, because the film is confident that its audience will empathise immediately. Athena couldn’t care less about those who need convincing.
But this is also where the film begins to push the boundaries of good taste. At times, it’s as if Gavras’ film isn’t merely resigning to violence, but actively encouraging it. My main complaint about Jogi was that it was too timid a film to be given the privilege to tackle such sensitive themes as the oppression of minorities and the banality of evil. Athena is quite the opposite. It’s an uncompromising and often uncomfortable look at police brutality and racial segregation. The take-no-prisoners attitude of Gavras’ filmmaking certainly isn’t going to win him any new friends, although it could (and should) win him an Academy Award nomination.
Director – Romain Gavras
Cast – Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, Alexis Maneti
Rating – 4.5/5