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‘Athena’: Riotous new Netflix movie set to burn everything down

Within the first ten minutes of “Athena” we witness a tense press conference erupting into violence, a raid on a police station by angry youths, and a thrilling race back to their urban stronghold with looted goods. It’s only after a flurry of breathless action and stunning camera work as they victoriously climb the barricades that the director decides to call off the cut.

To kick off this new Netflix thriller, Gavras and his cinematographer Matias Boucard have come up with a unique tracking shot tailored to grab the audience by the throat. It’s the kind of long shot that makes the opening of Touch of Evil feel like it could have pulled its socks up; this makes the raid in “True Detective” look like a walk in the park. It’s an adrenaline rush to the heart and sets a pace that’s impossible to keep up. But in 97 relentless, thrilling minutes, this film will try.

Karim (played by newcomer Sami Slimane) mourns the loss of his younger brother, who was beaten to death by uniformed officers – the third instance of police brutality in two months in Athena, an impoverished community on the outskirts of Paris. He wants names, but the police refuse to take responsibility. Her brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah, “No Time To Die”) is a soldier who advocates peace, while eldest brother Koktar (Ouassini Embarek) is a drug dealer who fears a riot could be bad for business. Karim, meanwhile, has emerged as a poster child ready to lead a generation into battle.

Shortly after the raid, the police rush Athena to confront the youths. In between are their parents and extended families. The film questions her passivity and asks for sympathy for her and for Jerome (Anthony Bajon), a terrified officer who is sent into battle. But mostly we channel Karim’s righteous wrath, undeterred by his brothers’ interventions.

Gavras and co-writers Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar tell the story of the siege, which takes place almost entirely within Athena’s concrete labyrinth, and builds on a series of lengthy shots that emphasize the chaos of ongoing battles and Karim’s makeshift plans. Filmed with IMAX cameras, Molotov cocktails and Roman candles kick off the night; Masses of bodies fill corridors, dash across rooftops and crash into each other to the strains of a baroque score.

What if the Trojan War took place in a Parisian housing estate? It could look like that. With its clashing brothers, mythologized men and epic sense of grandeur, Athena evokes ancient Greek tragedies. But his pain is rooted in today – and you can clearly feel it. It’s a bravura piece of cinema from a general behind the camera; one that inevitably draws attention to the art of warfare that is filmmaking itself. The logistics of it all make your head spin.

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

The interview: Romain Gavras, writer and director

Director Romain Gavras attends the photocall for 'Athena' at the 79th Venice International Film Festival September 2.

A graduate of music videos like Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild,” Gavras is no stranger to capturing a riot. But he’s never done it to this extent — 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 film, we make everything real,” says Gavras. “The planning was oddly almost military and very precise to create chaos on camera.”

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

Now streaming: “Saloum”

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

Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot delivers a lively midnight film about three mercenaries on the run in a remote corner of Senegal. Yann Gael, Roger Sallah and Mentor Ba entertain as badass gunslingers, but their poise is tested when a paranormal enemy threatens them and their gold stash. Herbulot’s twisted neo-Western (a “Southern” as he calls it) packs many themes and undead West African history into its tight running time. The specter of colonialism and the exploitation of people and places are large and offer a dark touch. Nonetheless, it’s good mushy fun with a fierce imagination and eye-catching visual flair.

“Saloum” is available on Shudder in the USA.

A bookmark for later: “No Bears”

Jafar Panahi, writer, director and star of
Every new film by Jafar Panahi 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 has always found a way. In “No Bears,” Panahi plays a version of herself who has traveled to a border village to remotely direct a film in neighboring Turkey. He becomes involved in a local dispute and is accused of photographing a couple’s illegal encounter, the woman being promised to another. Meanwhile, in his film, the real couple plans an exodus. Boundaries of all kinds play a major role. Plagued by villagers who are suspicious of him and his camera, and authorities who ask questions, the director weighs up which location would be best for him.
Pondering the dangers of observation and the unforeseen consequences of making art, No Bears is a layered metafiction typically self-reflective and inextricably linked to its context. Circumstances have turned Panahi’s filmmaking into an act of contradiction. This is perhaps his best and most defiant work from this period. It’s also the most poignant. Panahi was arrested in July and jailed to serve a previously unenforced six-year sentence for “anti-system propaganda,” 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 in “No Bears” tells the director. Panahi has proven his courage once again.
“No Bears” has its US premiere in New York Film Festival in October.

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