With his incendiary 2019 debut feature, Les Misérables, director Ladj Ly brought the urban unrest, the police brutality and the festering social and racial inequality of the Paris banlieue drama La Haine hurtling into the 21st century, its belly aflame with righteous anger and indignation. Ly serves as a writer and producer on Romain Gavras’ Athena, which is both a companion piece to those films and a thundering amplification of their themes. Where the earlier works built to stunning crescendos of violence, Athena is a live grenade, beginning in full ignition mode and dialing up its intensity throughout with virtuoso technique.
That latter factor will surprise no one familiar with the output of Gavras, son of renowned Greek director Costa-Gavras, who made a mark with his dynamic music videos for artists including Kanye West, Jay-Z and M.I.A. His third feature is a significant tonal departure from its predecessor, The World is Yours, in which the director’s visual flair was channeled into a zippy gangster comedy.
The Bottom Line
Nerve-rattling, intense and explosive.
Athena — which streams from Sept. 23 on Netflix, following its premiere in the Venice Film Festival main competition — takes its title from the housing projects where almost the entirety of the action unfolds at a breathless pace. (Shooting took place among the brutalist ‘60s architecture of the Parc aux Lièvres projects in Paris’ southern suburb of Évry.)
But the title also references the story’s inspiration in Greek tragedy, with fraternal ties riven by conflicted loyalties, and blinding anger sparked by the consuming thirst for revenge. It’s a tough watch at times, but one that keeps the audience in a firm chokehold.
Scripted 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 request calm while an investigation is undertaken to identify the men responsible for the death of his 13-year-old brother Idir, seen in a video that’s gone viral. A news clip is heard calling it the third case of police brutality to rock the country in recent months. The dead boy’s grandfather was an Algerian who fought with distinction in the French military.
The solemn, almost liturgical music with rich choral motifs by 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 hurls a Molotov cocktail, triggering instant chaos as cops with riot shields are overwhelmed and the violent mob loots the station, chanting “We are the police now!” Their leader, who hurled the explosive, is gradually identified as Karim (Sami Slimane), Abdel’s younger brother.
With impressive skill and what must have been insanely complicated camera choreography, Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard create the illusion of long continuous takes, weaving among various groups of cops and rioters as the latter head back to Athena in a stolen police van and a swarm of other vehicles, with a haul of weapons that includes a gun locker.
Gavras injects the material with the kinetic urgency of combat scenes, with Karim barking orders and making snap decisions as the insurrectionists — most of them seemingly in their late teens or 20s — fan out to defend their turf from the marshaling police force. While the rioters, barricaded behind Athena’s fortress-like walls, vow to wage war against the Feds until they deliver the names of Idir’s assailants, the cops stage a counterattack designed to systematically weaken their ranks.
As Abdel attempts and initially fails to make contact with Karim, their older brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) rails against the angry youth mob putting his drug-dealing business in jeopardy, evacuating the sprawling complex of buildings along with most of the residents. He refuses to provide them with guns, despite Karim’s fervent requests.
Like Les Misérables, the dense action and accelerated pacing — again unfolding in a semblance of real time — leave little room for depth of character or political perspective. But the three surviving brothers are drawn with clear distinctions. This makes for heated friction when Karim eventually confronts Abdel, spitting out “You’re a military whore for France.” The fuse that lights the powder keg between the two is what to do with the insurrectionists’ terrified hostage, baby-faced cop Jérôme (Anthony Bajon), who is wounded by a police bullet.
As the situation grows more desperate, Abdel snaps and allegiances shift, while the stakes are considerably heightened once former jihadist and ex-con Sébastien (Alexis Manenti, the sleazy cop in Les Misérables) is enlisted to put his explosives expertise to use. That character’s transformation — from a medicated daze as he potters in a courtyard garden or sits out the conflict in a community nursery to decisive purposefulness as he starts methodically rigging gas tanks — is chilling. It also signals the end of any possibility of a resolution without further loss of lives.
While the film’s emphatic style can become draining, and its attention to technique risks overshadowing the interpersonal drama, there’s an operatic grandeur here that won’t quit, giving the constantly escalating violence considerable power. Even without knowing too much about the history of the siblings’ bonds, the losses they suffer register sharply against the pervading atmosphere of rage and encroaching hopelessness.
Intermittent snippets of news reports convey how the violence has spilled out beyond the quarter, with mosques burning, right-wing anti-immigrant attacks and solidarity protests across the country. And there are images that punctuate the drama’s propulsive forward motion in striking ways — Abdel donning a kameez at his mother’s insistence to join the Muslim brotherhood in a room praying for Idir; an older man astride a white horse waving an Algerian flag; the insurrectionists forced to strip to their boxers and step outside the building, revealing them to be spindly boys barely into adulthood.
The actors propel themselves like live ammunition through the melee, with Benssalah and newcomer Slimane making particularly forceful impressions. But it’s the film’s churning visual poetry that keeps you glued. Gavras has clearly studied the physicality of the great siege and battle movies, making extensive use of long takes to dial up both the immersive aspect and the immediacy, placing us right in the thick of things.
In one bravura sequence after another, Boucard’s camera slams us into walls, tight corridors and stairwells as insurrectionists and cops charge through the buildings, like a dam breaking, releasing a flood of human bodies in claustrophobic spaces. Those scenes play in contrast to wide shots that take in the full scale of the projects as the battle plays out over 24 hours. If you can get on board with its frenetic rhythms and fever pitch, Athena is a sustained shock of a movie that will leave you bruised, right down to the sobering revelation of its coda.