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.
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.
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
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.”
One to stream now: “Saloum”
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.