Athena, the latest film from music video director Romain Gavras, is a one-trick pony, but this trick is so formally stunning that the film is an enchanting experience. Consisting of several long, labyrinthine takes punctuated by traditionally edited scenes, it follows three Franco-Algerian brothers in Paris – young and middle-aged adults from different walks of life – who fall into disarray in the wake of a harrowing family tragedy.
Her youngest sibling, a child named Idir, was murdered and the culprits caught on camera appear to be French police. The eldest brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), is a drug and arms dealer who only takes care of himself. Middle brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is a career soldier dedicated to maintaining order. The most poignant piece of the puzzle, however, is the youngest surviving brother, Karim (Sami Slimane), a charismatic leader with sad, sunken eyes who starts a riot at his housing project that quickly spreads across the city.
The film’s opening sequence sets the stage for numerous impressive tableaux of state violence and anti-fascist uprisings, each of which begins as a personal portrait before stretching out to reveal a larger picture. It begins during a stilted police press conference about Idir’s assassination, at which Abdel happens to be present and in uniform. The scene ignites as a group of angry protesters throw a Molotov cocktail at the pulpit. The subsequent continuous adjustment lasts more than 10 minutes.
Though the sequence begins in a highly sterilized environment, it quickly explodes into white-knuckled chaos as they follow Karim and dozens of other black-clad protesters who not only confiscate guns and police vehicles, but drive them through the city in a high-octane chase, back to the makeshift fortress they built in the Athena housing complex (aptly named after the Olympian goddess of battle strategy).
This outbreak, it seems, was a long time coming. Rather than rethink and re-explain the surrounding politics – as in the United States, the police killings of civilians and the ensuing protests in France have dominated the headlines for years – Athena begins with a breathtaking climax that lasts almost the entire 97 minutes. What we experience while watching Athena is the beginning of an inevitable war.
Gavras captures it with cranes, drones and techniques that defy logic, and frames it with hundreds and hundreds of extras in tortuous and vast patterns. It is tactile yet ethereal. The camera dives between the vehicles, photographing them from across the street like chariots passing, then pulls up alongside them and dives into them with the characters before retreating again to capture the dizzying proportions of the commotion.
Gavras’ picture of the action races from one moment of violent defiance to the next at breakneck speed, hinting at just how widespread this furor is as the film begins. But the staging of this opening scene has a second function. It gives us the lay of the land, a detailed sense of not only the film’s visual and emotional texture, but also the streets between the police station and Athena, where countless spectators line the rooftops and cheer for Karim, and where the rest of the story will unfold unfold. It’s not long before neighboring housing projects announce their allegiance to Athena, as do kingdoms joining the fight in Middle-earth.
Rarely has a film so emulated the feel of a roller coaster ride, with peaks and valleys building into adrenaline rushes, carefully readjusting before each subsequent crash. Abdel and Karim lead opposing charges as floods of SWAT teams enter fortified buildings full of rioters. Meanwhile, her half-brother Moktar meanders in and out of both plans, primarily protecting his business interests when he could help both sides. The three brothers represent facets of French society in microcosm: the oppressor, the oppressed and the affluent third party, who benefit one way or the other whether they interfere or not. Their imagery leads to a streamlined story that avoids the need to over-tell who, what, or why.
The story is simple, but risks being so to easy. By throwing the audience headlong into chaos, Gavras obscures some of the more direct emotional materials. Athena focuses on a vicious murder, and the ensuing plot plays like an increased externalization of grief that has become unstoppable after numerous such state-sanctioned executions. But audiences are never given a chance to reflect on that grief or really feel it through the brothers’ eyes. Though the film occasionally slows down to show tender moments of shared grief in the trio’s Muslim community (including a fleeting encounter with the brothers’ mother), there is no pause to view the brothers outside of their prescribed roles as symbols of greater unrest get to know.
Although the film rarely dramatizes her emotional wounds, this symbolic depiction also lends itself to the aesthetic approach Gavras has pursued throughout his career. While Gavras has done two other narrative features (Our day will come and The world is Yours), he is best known for his red-hot music videos, notably MIA’s “Born Free,” in which militarized cops systematically hunt down redheads in a fantasy racism scenario, and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” in which features some of the most striking images of fiery protests in popular media.
Athena plays like a feature version of the visual fixes in these videos – condensed stories in which brutal state violence is a pre-existing condition, whose basic diagnoses are an afterthought, but whose end symptoms Gavras examines in stark, visceral hues. (The film is also a more subtle follow-up to Gavras’ video for his late friend DJ Mehdi’s “Signature,” a vivid depiction of a suburban community where the camera captures detail and lived experiences as it moves through common spaces.)
Athena is arguably a style-over-substance film given how little time and attention it devotes to the personal drama that underlies its politics. But in Gavras’ hands, style is substance as well, with an understated classic giving way to a baroque staging as each lengthy take accelerates. Scenes build in a way that feels both narratively inevitable and visually prophetic. Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard seem to explore the hidden dimensions of these clashes between police and protesters through movement – not only through the movement of their subjects, but also through the movement of their camera, which tilts and rotates as if to capture every possible angle . Speed up the film even further and you have something that approaches cubist art, with dimensions and perspectives practically overlapping amidst all the chaos.
The rehearsed character of each long shot isn’t just a nice gimmick, like Sam Mendes’ 1917, a war film whose mock one-take design loses perspective of the characters’ surroundings, thereby dissolving its tension. Instead, the choreography in Athena is a symphony in its own right, targeting the living, breathing details of the brothers’ surroundings with every turn while building into moments of darkness that are quickly consumed by flames. Thick smoke and flying embers soon become his standard lingua franca, as if it were an up-tempo remix by Sergei Bondarchuks war and peace. The music of Gavras’ own collaborative project, Gener8ion, combines booming, Zimmer-like percussion with operatic vocalizations in a frozen crescendo state. The music, like the image, rarely stops moving or progressing, but around every corner lies a new and surprising confrontation, so it never loses momentum.
Gavras shot Athena with IMAX cameras, making it all the more mature to view primarily as an immersive visual spectacle. (Theatrical release in the US was sadly limited to a week on a New York screen.) That said, a small screen on Netflix will likely still feel emotionally charged, as another key ingredient is filmmaker Ladj Ly, who co-wrote Athena with Gavras and producer Elias Belkeddar. Ly was the director behind the 2019 Les Miserables, a modern retelling of the novel by Victor Hugo, which was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. As Athenait focuses on tensions between French police and communities of color and similarly leads to climatic eruptions.
His attitude Les Miserables is a fantastic film, and while its approach is more measured (and arguably more nuanced) than Athena‘s, combining Ly’s community focus with Gavras’ bold, mile-long styling results in a handful of quiet moments. These underscore the turmoil and allow for short but erratic respites. Before the audience knows it, the characters are back in battle, in a chaotic world that threatens to consume them. And her own unbridled anger is just as dangerous. With AthenaGavras turns this rage into living dioramas that are so technically stunning they become emotionally immersive too.
Athena Streams on Netflix starting September 23.