‘Athena’ Stuns With Both Beauty and Intensity

You might have to manually search for it on Netflix, but it's worth the effort.

Another day, another video showing police violence resulting in the death of a young person. The public is angry, but the child’s older brother, Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is calling for calm. He’s a soldier, just returned from the front lines, and he believes the system will identify and punish the culprits. One in the crowd who disagrees is Karim (Sami Slimane), a third brother, and he immediately lets his rage show by way of a molotov cocktail. Soon a mob of young people, masked, yelling, and armed with fireworks, storm the police station stealing weapons, gear, and a police van. Their ride back home — a sprawling housing project called Athena — is celebratory as they race down the highway, supporters waving flags from windows, and finally reach the apartment complex. Karim works his way through bustling hallways and energetic courtyards before stopping at an overpass alongside dozens of others.

Director/co-writer Romain Gavras ends his stunning, eleven-minute single-take with a wide shot showing Karim and his army of determined youths standing atop the overpass like soldiers guarding a castle wall against an impending invasion. The historically informed imagery is intentional as these “soldiers” are expecting an assault by an enemy force (the police), and the home they’re protecting is named after the Greek goddess of war. Athena is more than a war film, though, as it infuses its action and intensity with drama, tragedy, and a real gut punch of an ending.

The basis of the igniting incident in Athena‘s script (by Elias Belkeddar, Ladj Ly, and Gavras) is grounded in sad realities around the “civilized” world, and while its setting is France it’s a situation all too familiar for American audiences to recognize and sympathize with. The living intensity of that opening oner never dissipates as the film keeps moving through a series of build-ups, clashes, interactions, and turns, many of them captured with gorgeous visuals. Moments to breathe are few and far between, and even then the quiet is heavy with rage and desperation.

Karim is clearly too young for such a heavy obligation, but while his eyes reveal the toll of it all, his presence demands respect. Slimane gives a wildly impressive debut performance here, commanding the screen with authority and capturing viewers with his fragility. Karim is hurting and understandably doubtful that the system will do a damn thing about it, and that doubt channels into a red-hot fury that Abdel struggles to douse with common sense and rational thought. Things are only complicated further by youthful anger, police trained to follow orders, and a fourth brother (Ouassini Embarek) running drugs and guns out of the Athena complex.

Athena is a powder keg of a film, one telling a fictional story built on far too many truths. It’s a fast-moving ride at just under a hundred minutes, but that adrenaline doesn’t get in the way of the film’s emotional weight. We don’t see the inciting video, but we don’t need to — we’ve already seen far too many real ones — so viewers are already feeling the rage and confusion of the film’s characters. Relationships are drawn up efficiently, from the brothers to some of the residents to a young police officer (Anthony Bajon) who’s clearly in over his head and might not escape with it intact, and their introductions never interfere with the film’s momentum.

Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard dazzle with that opening shot, but the rest of Athena is every bit as eye-catching. There are a few more oners, shorter but still memorable, and they also find magic in the light. Weaponized fireworks illuminate the screen in color, fire finds a life of its own, and action beats explode outwards even as they pull viewers into claustrophobic rumbles and beatdowns. We move through holes torn into walls and tunnels made of bodies and shields protecting us from fiery bombardment. It’s a war both beautiful and heart wrenching.

Gavras, son of celebrated (and often politically minded) director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing, Betrayed), knows the topic at hand here is as politically charged as they come, but he never takes the simplest path with Athena‘s commentary and condemnation. The easy story to tell is cops bad/civilians good, but the film instead finds nuance in those generalizations and a greater, more damning truth about the ease with which we allow others — often with dangerous agendas — to manipulate and massage our own behaviors. We’re all flawed, we’re all heroes… we’re all each other has.

Athena is currently streaming on Netflix.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.