The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Netflix] - ATHENA | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Netflix] - ATHENA

athena review
When a 13-year-old boy is seemingly killed by cops, his brothers find themselves on opposing sides of a mass riot.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Romain Gavras

Starring: Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, Alexis Manenti

athena poster

Ask any cinephile to name three political filmmakers and Costa-Gavras is sure to make the list. The Greek-French director's son, Romain Gavras, is something of a political filmmaker too, but the methods employed by father and son couldn't be more different. Gavras Jnr is very much a stylist, often accused of style over substance, and is best known for his work in the fields of music promos and commercials, which sometimes contain blunt political messages like the genocide against gingers of his promo for MIA's 'Born Free', a theme he carried over into his feature debut, Our Day Will Come.

athena review

His third feature, Athena, is similarly blunt, but I'm not sure if it has a message, or anything of substance to say. Part Battle of Algiers, part Death Wish III, the film tackles the hot button French issue of police brutality against immigrant communities and the riots that often break out in response.

When a 13-year-old Arab boy is seemingly killed by police, an incident captured on video and shared across social media, the boy's oldest brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah, an Arab George Clooney), a decorated soldier, appeals for calm at a press conference held at the local police station. His words are ignored by his younger brother Karim (Sami Slimane), who leads an assault on the police station, stealing weapons and returning to Athena, a sprawling council estate in the Parisian suburbs. Meanwhile, Abdel's half-brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), the local drug dealer, is attempting to hide his stash before the police come charging in.

athena review

The film begins following the three brothers, along with Jerome (Anthony Bajon), a riot cop who finds himself separated from his unit and attempting to escape the estate. This latter subplot plays like a lesser retread of Ladj Ly's Les Misérables (Ly is a co-writer here) and the recent Danish thriller Shorta, especially when Abdel becomes his protector.

It's never clear what we're supposed to make of the various characters, as Gavras takes a dispassionate, objective view of the scenario. Aside from Moktar, who is something of a stereotypical portrayal of a narcissistic drug dealer, there are cases to be made for all the protagonists. Karim's anger is understandable, whether justified or not, while Abdel's desire to protect his community from imploding with rage is equally relatable. Jerome is simply trying to get home after a fraught day at work. Ly pulled this objectiveness off very well with Les Misérables, but here it just leaves us coldly watching the chaos ensue. The citizens of Athena are as faceless as the rioters of Assault on Precinct 13, while the cops might as well be androids.

athena review

So yes, we're very much dealing with a case of style over substance here. But what style! Athena is one of the most visually dazzling movies of recent years. I'm not sure what sort of budget Gavras was working with but it looks like the most expensive movie to come out of France since the days of Abel Gance. Gavras shoots most scenes in extended single takes, employing drones to capture some shots that will have you rewinding to try and figure out where the joins are and how on earth he managed to pull them off so smoothly. The opening sequence - which begins with the assault on the police station, continues to a highway chase and ends with Karim rallying his troops back at the titular estate - is a oner for the ages, an incredible piece of technical virtuosity. There are individual moments – like fireworks reflecting off the shields of dozens of riot cops – that will have your jaw on the floor. Athena is a thing of dark beauty, but it should probably be a lot grittier. If you come for the politics you'll likely be left cold, but you'll stay for the imagery. There's a sad irony that only Netflix could afford to give a French filmmaker the sort of budget required to make something this expansively cinematic, and it's a shame it will be experienced by most viewers on screens too small to do it justice.

 is on Netflix from September 23rd.

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