Athena Is A Knockout
The third film from French filmmaker Romain Gavras – a potent swirl that’s one-part Greek tragedy, one-part tribalistic war film, and one-part La Haine – unfurls itself to Netflix audiences with an unbroken sequence of harrowing tumult.
Still garbed in the fatigues that came with his former position in the military, Abdel (Dali Benssalah) urges a teeming throng of onlookers to remain vigilant but peaceful in the wake of local police killing his younger brother. Stone-faced and stolid, Karim (Sami Slimane) – another of the murdered boy’s three brothers – launches a Molotov cocktail into the crowd before urging his marauding army into an assault on the police station. Karim leads these adolescent soldiers in an ecstatic escape up the highway to the banlieue where the rest of the film will take place, centered around a stand-off between the titular housing project and the police. And, finally, after eleven minutes of unrelenting action, Gavras cuts.
It's a go-for-broke opening that will thrust you into the immediacy of the film. It will leave some wondering how on earth they managed it; it will leave others frustrated that such self-aggrandizing directorial techniques might take away from the story unfolding in front of the camera. It left me thinking both.
That’s why I’m thrilled to report that the next 86 minutes of Athena are even better than its breathtaking prologue.
Rather than style without substance, Athena plays out as a purposeful exercise in style before substance. The son of the quietly bombastic filmmaker Costa-Gavras, Romain Gavras has spoken of the need to grab streaming viewers by the throats and drag them into your film. But the rest of Athena is hardly empty, and as the tale of these three brothers unfolds – Abdel, Karim, and the surly but broken high-end criminal Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) – we quickly realize that the bold formal choices are rooted firmly in the functional requirements of their story.
The frenetic pace of extended one-shot sequences convey the urgency of this primal face-off between oppressed and oppressors. Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard’s camera follows Karim through his makeshift army, bringing us along to feel how easy it is for small decisions to snowball into catastrophic consequences when you don’t have a single second to stop and think. In doing so, it gives the quiet moments an overwhelming power. Karim glancing at the caller ID as his mother calls him in the echoing emptiness of an elevator. Abdel stopping to pray and making eye contact with his brother before shuttling the hordes of bystander residents out of the building and the neighborhood.
But this form-follows-function approach to Athena goes beyond the obvious. The film’s style mirrors the journey of its two main characters, Karim and Abdel. One is a non-stop ball of id and aggression, a front meant to keep out the despair that comes with the silence; the other is a mask of solitude that prevents the simmering rage from bubbling up above the surface. Gavras teams with cowriters Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar to build a script that weaponizes its moments of reflection to push these characters into emotional reckoning. And he works with Boucard to frame them with a haunting severity that isolates these two constantly-moving men in their own world of apocalyptic stillness. It wouldn’t be possible without the harrowing performances from Slimane and Benssalah – the latter of whom offers an on-screen catharsis that might just be the best scene of the year.
For all of the tension it builds in itself and in its audience, Athena lets it out with barely a sputter. The film builds to an overwrought finale, as Gavras chooses the one plot thread that feels grafted on throughout to anchor the final moments. And that pales in comparison to the misbegotten coda, seemingly an attempt to provide answers and evoke the politics of the day – neither of which are necessary in a timeless movie such as this one.
Despite the disappointing ending, Athena is one of the best movies of the year. It necessarily draws comparisons to Z, the landmark act of cinematic and political rebellion from Costa-Gavras. That film was effective because of its specificity; this one works due to its allegoric approach. Z found its power in an innovative, chaotic editing style; Athena finds its strength in immersive long-takes. But Romain Gavras followed in his father’s footsteps in one crucial way: like Z, Athena is a document that transmits the urgency of its time in a uniquely cinematic package.