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.
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
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.”
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