Revue ‘Athena’: director Romain Gavras ignites Parisian projects with technical virtuosity

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With his incendiary feature debut of 2019, Wretcheddirector Ladj Ly brought Paris’s urban unrest, police brutality and latent social and racial inequality suburb drama Hatred rushing into the 21st century, its belly inflamed with righteous anger and indignation. Ly is a screenwriter and producer on Romain Gavras Athena, which is both a companion to these films and a thunderous amplification of their themes. Where earlier works built breathtaking crescendos of violence, Athena is a living grenade, starting in full ignition mode and building its intensity throughout with virtuoso technique.

This last factor will not surprise anyone familiar with the production of Gavras, son of the famous Greek director Costa-Gavras, who has made a name for himself with his dynamic music videos for artists such as Kanye West, Jay-Z and MIA. His third feature is a significant tonal. departure of his predecessor, The world belongs to youin which the director’s visual flair was channeled into energetic gangster comedy.

Athena

The essential

Nervous, intense and explosive.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Release date: Friday September 23
Cast: Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, Alexis Manenti
Director: Romain Gavras
Screenwriters:
Romain Gavras, Ladj Ly, Elias Belkeddar

Rated R, 1 hour 37 minutes

Athena – which streams from September 23 on Netflix, following its premiere in the main competition of the Venice Film Festival – derives its title from the housing projects where almost all of the action takes place at a breathless pace. (Filming took place in the brutalist 1960s architecture of the Parc aux Lièvres projects in the southern Paris suburb of Évry.)

But the title also references the story’s inspiration in Greek tragedy, with brotherly bonds torn by clashing loyalties and blinding anger sparked by the all-consuming thirst for revenge. It’s a tough watch at times, but one that keeps the audience in a firm grip.

Written by Gavras, Ly and Elias Belkaddar, the film opens with a police press conference. French paratrooper Abdel (Dali Benssalah) has been called back from the front to ask for calm as an investigation is carried out to identify the men responsible for the death of his 13-year-old brother Idir, seen in a video that has gone viral. A news clip is heard calling it the third case of police brutality to rock the country in recent months. The deceased boy’s grandfather was an Algerian who fought with distinction in the French army.

The solemn, almost liturgical, richly choral-motif music of Gener8ion (a multidisciplinary collaborative project of Gavras and electronic producer-composer Benoît Heitz, aka Surkin) is interrupted when a young man in the agitated crowd throws a Molotov cocktail, setting off a instant chaos as cops with riot shields are overwhelmed and the violent mob loot the station, chanting “We’re the police now!” Their leader, who threw the explosive, is gradually identified as Karim (Sami Slimane), Abdel’s younger brother.

With impressive skill and what must have been incredibly complicated camera choreography, Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard create the illusion of continuous long takes, weaving between various groups of cops and rioters as the latter return to Athena in a stolen police van and a swarm of other vehicles, complete with a weapons carriage that includes a gun locker.

Gavras injects the material with the kinetic urgency of fight scenes, with Karim barking orders and making quick decisions as the insurgents – most of them apparently in their late teens or twenties – fan out to defend their territory against muster police forces. As the rioters, barricaded behind the fortress-like walls of Athena, vow to wage war on the Feds until they deliver the names of Idir’s attackers, the cops stage a counterattack meant to weaken their ranks systematically.

As Abdel tries and initially fails to get in touch with Karim, their older brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) rails against the mob of angry youths putting his drug dealing business in jeopardy, evacuating the sprawling complex of buildings with most residents. He refuses to supply them with weapons, despite Karim’s fervent pleas.

As Wretched, the dense action and accelerated pacing – again taking place in a semblance of real time – leaves little room for character depth or political perspective. But the three surviving brothers are drawn with clear distinctions. This creates heated friction when Karim ends up confronting Abdel, spitting “You are a military whore for France”. The fuse that lights the powder keg between the two is what to do with the insurgents’ terrified hostage, baby-faced cop Jerome (Anthony Bajon), who is injured by a police bullet.

As the situation grows more desperate, Abdel cracks and allegiances change, while the stakes are dramatically raised once former jihadist and ex-con Sébastien (Alexis Manenti, the sleazy cop of Wretched) is enlisted to put his explosives expertise to good use. This character’s transformation — from a drugged stunner as he potters in a backyard garden or sits on the conflict in a community nursery, to decisive determination as he begins methodically rigging gas tanks — is scary. This also signals the end of any possibility of resolution without further loss of life.

While the film’s emphatic style can become exhausting and its attention to technique risks overshadowing the interpersonal drama, there’s a lyrical grandeur here that won’t let up, giving the ever-escalating violence tremendous power. Even without knowing too much about the history of the siblings’ bonds, the losses they suffer sit strongly within the atmosphere of overwhelming rage and despair.

Intermittent snippets of news reports show how the violence has spread beyond the neighborhood, with mosques burned down, right-wing anti-immigrant attacks and solidarity protests across the country. And there are images that punctuate the drama’s forward thrust in stark fashion – Abdel donning a kameez at his mother’s insistence to join the Muslim brotherhood in a room praying for Idir; an old man riding a white horse waving an Algerian flag; the insurgents forced to strip down to their boxers and exit the building, revealing them to be spindly barely grown boys.

The actors propel themselves like live ammunition into the fray, with Benssalah and newcomer Slimane making particularly strong impressions. But it’s the seething visual poetry of the film that keeps you spellbound. Gavras has clearly explored the physicality of great siege and battle films, making heavy use of long takes to dial in both the immersiveness and the immediacy, putting us right at the heart of things.

In one bravery sequence after another, Boucard’s camera slams us against walls, narrow hallways and stairwells as insurgents and cops charge through buildings, like a dam breaking, releasing a flood of human bodies in claustrophobic spaces. These scenes contrast with the wide shots that take on the full scope of the projects as the battle unfolds over 24 hours. If you can get on board with its frenetic rhythms and feverish tone, Athena is a sustained shock of a film that will leave you bruised, until the sobering reveal of its coda.

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