‘Athena’: Netflix’s incendiary new movie wants to burn everything

Within the first ten minutes of “Athena,” we witness a tense press conference turn to violence, a raid on a police station by angry youths, and a thrilling race back to their urban fortress with looted goods. . Only after a barrage of breathless action and mind-blowing camerawork, as they barricade themselves in victory, does the director decide to cancel.

Gavras and his cinematographer, Matias Boucard, have invented a historical tracking shot to kick off this new Netflix thriller, tailor-made to grab audiences by the throat. It’s the kind of long take that makes the opening of “Touch of Evil” look like it might have rolled up its socks; that makes the foray into “True Detective” seem like a walk in the park. It is an adrenaline rush to the heart and sets an impossible rhythm to maintain. But over the course of 97 relentless and exciting minutes, this film will try.

Karim (played by newcomer Sami Slimane) is grieving the loss of his younger brother, beaten to death by uniformed officers: the third case of police brutality in two months in Athena, an impoverished community on the outskirts of Paris. He wants names but the police deny responsibility for him. His brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah, “No Time To Die”) is a soldier who pleads for peace, while his older brother Koktar (Ouassini Embarek) is a drug dealer who worries that the riots will be bad for business. Meanwhile, Karim has become a figurehead ready to lead a generation into battle.

Shortly after the raid, the police descend on Athena to confront the youths. Caught in the middle are her parents and her extended families. The film questions her passivity as she begs for sympathy for them, as well as for Jerome (Anthony Bajon), a frightened officer sent into the fray. But mainly we are channeling Karim’s righteous anger, not persuaded by the interventions of his brothers.

Gavras and co-writers Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar tell the story of the siege that follows almost entirely within Athena’s concrete labyrinth, building around a series of long shots that emphasize the chaos of the skirmishes and the impromptu plans of Karim. Filmed with IMAX cameras, Molotov cocktails and Roman candles are thrown into the night; Masses of bodies fill corridors, run across rooftops and collide with each other to the sound of a baroque score.

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What would happen if the Trojan War took place in a Parisian housing estate? It could look like this. With her brothers at war with her, mythologized men and an epic sense of scale, “Athena” recalls the Greek tragedies of yore. However, her pains are rooted in today, and are felt intensely. It’s a piece of bravura cinema about a general behind the camera; one that inevitably draws attention to the art of war that is cinema itself. The logistics of all this make your head spin.

“Athena” is in select theaters now and is available on Netflix on September 23.

The interview: Romain Gavras, screenwriter and director

The director Romain Gavras attends the photocall of "Athena"  at the 79th Venice International Film Festival on September 2.

Gavras, an alumnus of music videos including Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild,” is no stranger to catching a lift. But he’s never done it on this scale before; it’s no wonder he cites epics like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” as inspiration for “Athena.”

“There’s no CGI in the movie, we do everything for real,” says Gavras. “The planning, interestingly, was almost military and very precise to create chaos in front of the camera.”

To hear more from the writer and director, read our full interview.

One to stream now: “Saloum”

Renaud Farah, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Yann Gael are on the run in

Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot delivers a spirited midnight film about three mercenaries on the run in a remote corner of Senegal. Yann Gael, Roger Sallah and Mentor Ba entertain as tough gunslingers, but their cocky attitude is put to the test when a paranormal enemy threatens them and their stash of gold. Herbulot’s (a “southerner,” he calls it) twisted neo-Western packs plenty of themes and undead West African history into its tight running time. The specter of colonialism and the exploitation of people and places looms large, offering a somber note. However, it’s good pulpy fun with a fierce imagination and flashy visual style.

“Saloum” is available in Shudder In the USA.

One to bookmark for later: “No Bears”

Jafar Panahi, the writer, director and star of
Every new Jafar Panahi movie feels like a small miracle. The Iranian director has been banned from leaving the country and making films for more than a decade, but he keeps finding a way. In “No Bears,” Panahi plays a version of himself who traveled to a border town to remotely direct a movie in neighboring Turkey. He gets caught up in a local dispute, accused of photographing the illicit meeting of a couple, the woman promised to another. Meanwhile, the real-life couple in his movie plots an exodus. Borders of all kinds are of great importance. Beset by villagers who treat him and his camera with suspicion, and with the authorities asking questions, the director weighs which location might be best for him.
Reflecting on the dangers of observation and the unintended consequences of making art, “No Bears” is a richly layered metafiction, typically self-reflective and inseparable from its context. Circumstances have transformed Panahi’s filmmaking into an act of dissent. This may be his best and most challenging work of this period. It is also the most moving. Panahi was arrested and jailed in July to serve a previously unserved six-year sentence for “propaganda against the system,” according to Reuters.
At the Venice Film Festival in September, where the film won a Special Jury Prize, an empty seat was reserved for the director after its premiere. “Our fear empowers others,” a character tells the director in “No Bears.” Panahi has shown his bravery once again.
“No Bears” has its US premiere at the New York Film Festival in October.

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