It’s been more than a decade since Romain Gavras filled his raw music video for “No Church in the Wild” with Molotovs, stolen police horses and dropkicked riot shields—visual motifs of protest heroics—and the only thing that’s changed is our familiarity with the aftermath. The rage behind these images still burns, but we know the cold comfort left behind when the embers are finally stomped out. Yet, the only thing to do is light the blaze again, which Gavras does in the riveting, vital Athena. A war epic between the people and the state, it sprints through a grassroots resistance movement like a brushfire: Blinding, dangerous, all-consuming.
The warzone is Athena, a French housing project, where tragedy has assembled a community, grown from a family. Idir, 13 and the youngest of four brothers—Karim (Sami Slimane), Abdel (Dali Benssalah) and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek)—has been beaten to death by police. Someone recorded it on their phone. But we find this out in sprinkled bits of exposition, blown to confetti and wafting through the smoke-filled air. Our immediate attention is on Karim, leading a tracksuited pack of neighbors and like-minded young people, raiding a police station.
The opening scene, the first of many incredible feats of planning, camerawork and drone operation, will make you vibrate through your seat. Gavras shoots long tracking shots like caffeine straight into your eyes: Painfully energizing. Athena’s opening is one of the year’s best, a piece of relentless, fist-pumping, jaw-clenching, goosebumping action that doesn’t stop until you’re fully radicalized. It’s then that you start peering through the style, seeing how it mirrors the personalities of its perspective characters. There’s a reason Athena feels like a heart attack in motion. There’s pain and panic. Your heart rate isn’t spiking just from the rush. But until we realize that, Karim and his crew star in a sweeping, large-scale epic—a modern 1917 where the horrifying euphoria of war has come home. Like Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins’ two-shot illusion, Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard’s Athena branches into acts separated by editing and shooting styles.
The first, where a majestic guerilla movement reigns with the operatic fervor of youthful fantasy, springs from Karim’s hardliners. His “army”—as one kid keeps yelling in the background—are Black and brown, their older Muslim relatives praying for Idir while mostly white cops assemble outside the towering banlieue’s gates, ready to scale them on ladders like orcs at Helm’s Deep. The always-running rabble ignores those trying to evacuate, and those, like eldest brother Moktar, who hilariously attempt to hide their own criminal enterprises. Those folks just aren’t what matters right now: They’re here for the cause. They document their victories on social media (filming one shoot another, wearing a stolen flak jacket, in the gut; do it for Idir, but also for the Vine). They are out of options, but full of hope. Their scenes keep jogging along with the endless vigor of a passionate new activist.
This gives way, as military veteran Abdel slowly takes the lead, to a tighter and more contained frame. The swirling, unblinking camera takes in the chaotic circus—motorcycle wheelies and a neverending fireworks show; Mad Max in Cabrini-Green—until it ages before our eyes, staring, half-lidded, into the bloodshot gazes of men who understand the world just a little bit better. We get the sense that Abdel’s seen shit. Been in it. Been numbed by it. He wants the violence to stop, even if it’s just rowdy kids with hockey sticks and Roman candles pestering hyper-militarized police that look like Kevlar samurai. He wants this, we feel, because he knows what the aftermath looks like. What escalation truly entails.
As we discover that which Abdel’s known all along, and see the inevitably tragic end to Athena’s neighborhood epic, Gavras fills his world with complicating details. Co-writing with Elias Belkeddar and filmmaker Ladj Ly, whose Les Misérables took a police clash all the way to the Oscars in 2019, Gavras’ France is consumed by civil war. In glimpses of news footage, spied on phones held by protestors and apartment TVs abandoned by their owners, we see a nation rally against injustice. The film is being released as Iran’s streets thrum in response to the morality police-driven death of Mahsa Amini. But Athena’s images and emotions are sadly universal. The swollen eye of a bystander, whom we just saw help a woman in a wheelchair down some stairs, recalls journalists like Linda Tirado, blinded by a foam bullet documenting the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis. The hand-wringing, overheard debates between talking heads echo Chicago Tribune op-eds that called not for the safety of protestors, but of Foot Lockers.
But Athena’s more overt desires to blur the black-and-white issue at hand can reek of inelegance, if not cowardice. One officer (Anthony Bajon) briefly takes the point of view away from the mourning siblings, characterized by wide eyes and painted nails—courtesy of twin toddler daughters. At best, it’s a sloppy way to juxtapose a family whose children are safe with one whose children were born into danger; at worst, it’s an eye-rollingly overt attempt to humanize. Sébastien (Alexis Manenti), a quiet ex-terrorist pulled back for one last bomb, is another flourish that feels less mythical than cartoonish. A final scene, which should’ve been cut in its entirety, bolds a cloying question mark to the affair.
Athena isn’t here for subtlety, though. It’s here to blow the drums out of your ears, the lids off your eyes, the lead from your shoes. With shots that start at “un-fucking-believable” and rocket towards “im-fucking-possible,” its grandiose vision aims to define an international symbol of modernity: Protest As War. Benssalah and Slimane, more political gradients than people, guide us along the mythmaking until we’ve fully grasped the absurdity of Athena being both the God of wisdom and war. But, as Frank Ocean sings in “No Church in the Wild,” what’s a God to a nonbeliever? Athena burns bright and fast, searing its unforgettable battle cry into the screen over just 99 minutes. Its idealistic action will stay with you for far longer.
Director: Romain Gavras
Writer: Romain Gavras, Ladj Ly, Elias Belkeddar
Starring: Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, Alexis Manenti
Release Date: September 23, 2022 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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