Film Review – Athena
When it comes to pure kinetic energy, few have matched the size and scope of Athena (2022). This is a propulsive, muscular film, exploding out of the gate with high octane action. Director Romain Gavras (who cowrites with Elias Belkeddar and Ladj Ly) has crafted a story that feels urgent in every frame. They take the premise of a tragedy – the death of a young person – and uses it as a catalyst for urban warfare. Perhaps not since The Battle of Algiers (1966) has chaos within a city felt so visceral. And while the themes and messaging get a little muddied in the latter half, there is no denying that the film works on a physical level. There is anger, frustration, and tragedy bleeding from the screen. This is a story about a community that has experienced discrimination and will no longer take it anymore.
Much will be made of the opening shot, and rightly so. We hear voiceovers of news stations reporting the death of a thirteen year old boy, Idir, caused by police violence. Idir’s brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah) – a French soldier – is placed at a podium to address an angry crowd. Within the spectators is Karim (Sami Slimane) – another one of Idir’s brothers – looking on with rage. Unable to wait any longer, Karim lights a Molotov cocktail and hurls it at the police station, igniting an all out riot. What follows is an incredible unbroken shot, following Karim as he makes his way in and out of hallways, barking out orders to his followers, gathering weapons, and escaping authorities. He, along with other protestors, hop on a truck and race their way to “Athena” – a housing complex – where they barricade themselves against the police.
It’s mind boggling how multifaceted and complicated the opening shot is. We zoom from inside buildings to within moving vehicles. The camera appears mounted to allow for smooth movement, but then will race down the street or rise high above the ground for a wide angle shot. Every location has something happening. Karim will walk into a room in the middle of a fire fight, then will make his way outdoors where followers await his next order. It’s such an expansive sequence that the production must have closed off an entire portion of the city to accomplish it, or the special effects were seamless that we can’t tell the difference.
Set pieces where the camera glides with the action without a cut is not new – some movies are made to look like one continuous take. But Gavras’ direction takes the technique to a whole new level. With cinematographer Matias Boucard, the action places actors in center frame, often in close up, but expands the canvas by filling in backgrounds with moving pieces. Notice the way background characters run around in the distance, or how spectators are perched atop buildings. One side of the screen may show rioters coming into formation while the other side depicts the police quickly approaching. The entire film is made up of several unbroken takes, with Benjamin Weill supplying minimal edits. The style creates an environment that feels alive, where we get a sense of a larger world outside of the main events. Everything feels spontaneous, even though we know it was all meticulously planned. When Abdel hops on a bike and weaves his way around people, falling debris, and explosions, we understand that it could not have been done without an expert understanding of action choreography. The film begs for multiple watches just for us to take note of all the details.
Although the narrative never lets up on the gas, Gavras and the production allow time for character development to bubble to the surface. The brothers have distinct personalities, with each one handling the death of their youngest sibling in different ways. Karim is the extremist, who believes that violence and destruction is the only way to get their voices heard. Sami Slimane delivers a powerful performance in his big screen debut, filling Karim with charisma and magnetism. He can influence his supporters with authority, but wears his emotions on his sleeve like any other young person. Luckily, the writing and direction do not make him simply an agent of anarchy. Small, quiet moments allow us to peer inside Karim’s psyche to see the pain of losing a family member.
In contrast, Abdel is the centrist, which makes his story the most morally fascinating. As a soldier, Abdel feels an obligation to his country and to the French government. But the loss of his brother (and because he is a person of color), causes his allegiances to shift back and forth. Much of Abdel’s arc has him struggling to balance the two sides of himself. He wants to stop the riots from causing any further loss, but his own community questions why he would side with a corrupt system. In a revealing exchange, Abdel’s own sister ridicules him for not standing up to the power structures that killed Idir. His family dynamics is further complicated by the introduction of yet another brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek). Moktar is a drug dealer focused solely on self preservation, even though his criminal activities exploited the very place he calls home. Moktar tries to convince Abdel to forget everything else and escape for his own good. Abdel’s relationship with his family makes for the emotional center. Which side he chooses lends to the most dramatic suspense.
Oddly, Athena has a layer of ambiguity when it comes to the social and political implications. Abdel, Karim, and Moktar’s actions are the result of economic and racial inequalities, but the narrative takes a far more ambiguous perspective toward police violence and government corruption. We see the other side through the eyes of Jerome (Anthony Bajon) an officer and family man called in to help stop the riots. When Jerome is stuck in the middle of his fellow officers with fireworks raining down like a thunderstorm, we can’t help but feel empathy for him. But what exactly does that mean thematically? Gavras takes a middle stance in this regard, not rooting for one perspective but not condemning the other as well. This will undoubtably frustrate some viewers. Unfortunately, Gavras ends the film with its weakest sequence, tossing in a twist that pulls the rug from everything leading up to it. Instead of a story of people raging against an unjust society, it crumbles under a late stage revelation that feels unearned.
And yet, despite its shortcomings, Athena succeeds as an all out, gripping visual experience. The action choreography and camerawork is astonishing, with the tension and pacing turned to a fever pitch. We’re put in the middle of the mayhem, where the desperation, confusion, and fury are so palpable we can almost touch it. As a technical achievement, we haven’t seen something of this caliber since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). It is a blast to the senses – pure adrenaline from start to finish. This is cinematic storytelling at its most primal form.