A soldier named Abdel (Dali Benssalah) stands before a crowd gathered outside a police station and announces the death of his 13-year-old brother Idir at the hands of the cops. Composed yet forlorn, he demands the names of the perpetrators, and asks for calm. Without cutting, the camera drifts into the crowd and lands on the watchful, intense eyes of a young man (whom we will soon learn is Abdel’s other brother Karim, played by Sami Slimane), who lights a Molotov cocktail and tosses it at the doors. In an instant, pandemonium erupts. The crowd starts to flee, and into the station stream dozens and dozens of more youths, their faces covered. Within seconds, with just Molotov cocktails and fireworks and sheer brazenness, they’ve overwhelmed the police, seized a lockerful of guns, commandeered a van, and turned the station into a hellscape of smoke and fire.
It’s still the first shot of the movie. The van, filled with gleeful kids, speeds down the highway, flanked by motorcycles popping triumphant wheelies and bystanders cheering in solidarity. The camera spins all around them as the kids wave the French flag and chant the name of their housing project, which has now become to them both a nation and a joyous symbol: “Ath-e-na, Ath-e-na, Ath-e-na!” Arriving at the project, the determined Karim – an impossibly young, sad-eyed general barking orders and keeping his people in line – marches towards an overpass, where he and his small army stand and look out at the world, defiant, expectant. The sides of the overpass resemble nothing so much as the ramparts of a castle.
We’re eleven minutes in, and director Romain Gavras finally cuts.
The electrifying Athena, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival today, has one eye on the present and another on the eternal. Its subject is timely but its presentation is timeless — it’s a war movie, a family drama, a Greek tragedy. At its heart are a trio of siblings on opposing sides of the conflict. Abdel, whom we saw in military fatigues in the opening scene, has just returned from serving with the French army in Mali. Both he and Karim want justice for their murdered brother, but they go about it in their own ways. Abdel thinks he can work within the system. Karim, despite his youth, has a face that evokes weariness and rage; he knows the system will never listen to people like him. Meanwhile, another brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a drug dealer who’s been running his operation out of the Athena projects, just wants to save his skin and his merchandise, and is ready to call in favors from the crooked narcotics cops that he’s been dealing with. Reminders abound throughout the film that the people here have lost any and all trust in the institutions around them.
Movies that begin in such spectacular fashion often fail to live up to the promise of their opening sequences. Athena not only maintains the energy of those opening minutes, it builds on it, to become something more complicated and poignant without ever slowing down. Gavras follows the three brothers, as well as a young riot cop, Jerome (Anthony Bajon), through the chaos of the uprising, as characters race through clouds of smoke and corridors filled with terrified residents, through open spaces surrounded by faceless, brutal cops and angry, bellowing kids. And because the film never lets up, small, intimate moments gain greater resonance — from a stare-down between Abdel and Karim during a funeral prayer for their brother, to Karim finding himself inside Idir’s room for a moment during the fighting, his rage renewing as he looks at photos of his dead sibling.
This is Gavras’s third feature film, and he’s also made some of the more notable music videos of the past couple of decades, including M.I.A.’s “Born Free” and “Bad Girls,” as well as Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” and Justice’s “Stress.” Up until now, his features have been playful and bizarre: 2010’s Our Day Will Come was a surreal drama about two redheads who, facing persecution for their hair, gradually become skinhead psychopaths (it inspired the controversial “Born Free” video), while 2018’s The World Is Yours was a bright, poppy drug-dealing comedy. His father is the great Greek political filmmaker Costa-Gavras, who made such monumental classics as Z and Missing. Now, with Athena (note the title), the son reconciles his own pop-savvy, sensationalist sensibilities with the impassioned filmmaking of the father. Watching this movie, one might certainly think of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, or Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, or Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, or Costa-Gavras’s own State of Siege. But one might also think of Mad Max: Fury Road, or The Dark Knight, or The Bourne Ultimatum, or even Star Wars. It has high, topical drama and unspeakable tragedy, but it also has magnificence and velocity.
In that sense, Athena is about more than just one banlieu uprising. Gavras wrote the script with his longtime collaborator Ladj Ly (whose recent Les Miserables also depicted police brutality and unrest within a French housing project, and whose excellent 2006 short documentary 365 days in Clichy-Montfermeil offered an insider’s view of the infamous 2005 French riots), and they clearly know that the reality on the ground isn’t as colossal or as spectacular as what we see in Athena. They’ve purposefully mythologized the story, as a way to tap into something more elemental and visceral.
Watching Karim move through the devastated buildings, we understand his seriousness of purpose, but we also feel something akin to exaltation; the madness around him is seductive, and Gavras films these scenes with doomed, romantic portent. (As Karim, the young Sami Slimane makes the most stunning acting debut I’ve seen in ages.) When the riot police arrive, they climb enormous ladders, like medieval soldiers trying to enter a fortress at night. They cluster their shields together in formation, like the ancient Romans and Greeks. The kids of Athena spin on their bikes around the cops and shower them with fireworks, which look like gauntlets of colorful space lasers.
Gavras compresses time in subtle ways, too, enhancing the idea that the film is working on multiple levels. Abdel leaves a gathering where he’s just seen his mother and races down flights of stairs to the far end of the complex — where he finds his mother again, among a group of evacuees. The people around her are carrying luggage, lamps, furniture. We realize this isn’t just an evacuation. It’s a migration, and that these people are leaving Athena the way they might leave a nation in flames. In other words, what we’re watching isn’t a moment, but a historical process — a slow-motion collapse that has taken decades to get here. And we realize that the origins of this madness run deeper, longer, and wider than anyone realizes. At one point, Abdel argues with his sister, who berates him for siding with the authorities, and for his naïve belief that he can put a stop to all this. “Why not let it burn?” she asks, furious. “You don’t want it to burn, or to start a war, not here,” he retorts.
Her chilling response comes immediately: “The war,” she says, “has started.”
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