Athena review: The feisty French drama blows mostly smoke

Romain Gavras’ “Athena” opens with a one-take sequence so painstakingly choreographed, and so jaw-dropping in its visual scope and emotional force, it’s almost a shame there’s still 90 minutes of film to go along with it. . It begins at a press conference where a French soldier, Abdel (Dali Benssalah), gravely admits to the recent murder of his 13-year-old brother, Idir, in an apparent altercation with the police. The tragic incident – the third instance of police brutality in two months, according to a report – was captured in a video that has since gone viral; With the community in turmoil, Abdel was called in, at great expense, to help limit the damage. But that goal is clearly futile once another man, Karim (Sami Slimane), throws a Molotov cocktail, igniting this film’s powder keg and turning the already tense surroundings into a full-fledged war zone.

Gavras’ decision to film all of this mayhem in one shot – or something very close to one shot – forges a visual bond between Abdel and Karim, which is no accident. It is soon revealed that the pair are brothers, though their shared grief over Idir’s death has pulled them in drastically different directions. The shot continues to unfold, never blinking: with heart-pounding virtuosity (cinematography is by Matias Boucard), the camera dives after Karim and other angry young men as they ransack the police station, rob cache of weapons, then drive back. at the Athena housing estate which they call home. And this place is their home, a sentiment they underline by unfurling a French tricolor along the way: it’s a provocative declaration of belonging to a country that hasn’t always claimed them back.

Soon another flag – an Algerian flag – will burst into the frame, an emblem of these young men’s North African lineage that subtly links “Athena” to a number of political thrillers about French colonialism and Algerian resistance. At the same time, the focus on police brutality carries an edge of topicality that transcends strict cultural and geographic boundaries; you might remember recent and distant American headlines. You might also remember 2019 Oscar-nominated Les Miserables, a stunning suburban drama written and directed by Ladj Ly. If “Athena” doesn’t achieve the same power (even with Ly credited as a co-writer with Gavras and Elias Belkeddar), it’s partly because her politics ultimately feel like a feint – a prop in a story that cares less about its characters, and the vast range of human experiences they represent, than about its own formal virtuosity.

However, let’s give this virtuosity its due. Gavras’ work here can be compared to the taut political thrillers of his father, Costa-Gavras (“Z”, “Missing”), but his talent with the camera has long been on display. (Before his previous feature films, “Our Day Will Come” and “The World Is Yours,” he directed music videos for artists including MIA, Jay-Z, and Kanye West.) Through the magic of digital editing, the feature length elaborate sequences of the genre he’s attempting here may be easier to pull off than they were when, say, Orson Welles was filming “Touch of Evil.” Yet Gavras demonstrates an impressive commitment to technique by plunging Athena (or “Athena!” judging by the crowd’s rallying cries) into a state of siege. The camera continues to bob and move as chaos erupts, angry male bodies jostle in frame, and sparks and flares light up the night sky, illuminating a battlefield crammed with helmets and shields riot. The physical verisimilitude is both shocking and enveloping.

As a sustained action choreography, “Athena” is therefore often breathtaking. As a drama about police brutality, the woes of a long-ignored underclass, and the complexities of modern French identity, the film feels thin and over-determined. Gavras composed the story as a vast symphony of civil unrest, pushed to somber operatic heights by the intensity of the performances, the moaning choral crescendos of the Gener8ion score and, above all, the unyielding gaze of the camera. It rushes for both the urgency of a news headline and the fatalism of a Greek tragedy, which essentially means it delivers gritty realism with one hand and embraces bald artifice with the other. .

Anthony Bajon in the movie “Athena”.

(Netflix)

There’s something a little too dramatic about the way “Athena” centers its story on not two but three bickering brothers, each representing a different face of immigrant rage. For a time, Abdel is the peacemaker caught in the middle, determined to quell the unrest and help the people of Athena evacuate safely. Karim, his long hair marking him as the romantic revolutionary in this story, wants Idir’s killers to be publicly identified and brought to justice, and he’s willing to take a young cop (a friendly Anthony Bajon) hostage to get away with it. ensure this happens. The eldest of the siblings is Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a drug dealer trying to smuggle himself out of a nightmarish situation. Unlike his brothers, he cares about nothing and only represents his profits.

As strongly inhabited as these characters are – especially by Benssalah and Slimane, who make Abdel and Karim’s brotherly love as palpable as their fury – they rarely appear as more than pieces moving at will in a game of chess. fiery and laden with misfortune. Sébastien (Alexis Manenti) is even more of a cipher, a mysterious figure – though not, thankfully, another sibling – who lurks with a mute menace on the periphery of the story, then leads it to its grim but spectacularly photogenic finale. In these moments, “Athena” shows that she likes to play with fire, but mainly because of her cool appearance.

‘Athena’

In French and Arabic with English subtitles

Evaluation: R, for language and violence

Operating time: 1 hour 37 minutes

Playing: Starts September 23 on Netflix