For those who still have the mistaken impression that police brutality against black people and other communities of color exists as an exclusively American form of racially motivated violence, “Athena,” an explosive drama (both figuratively and literally) by French director Romain Gavras, son of the legendary author Costa-Gavras, refutes it.
On a fateful day following the brutal murder of a Middle Eastern boy at the hands of a group of white men – either made up of cops, members of a far-right clan, either perhaps of one and the same – chaos erupts in the deprived Parisian district of Athena, as young people revolt in response to such injustice.
Throwing us into the action almost immediately, Gavras opens “Athena” (world premiering at the 2022 Venice Film Festival) with one of cinematographer Matias Boucard’s stunningly impressive takes taking us from a press conference – where Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a policeman and an older brother of the victim, calls for calm – at the epicenter of the turmoil where barricades and fires abound.
Ready to burn everything to cleanse the country of its poisonous and institutionalized ideologies of oppression, Karim (Sami Slimane), a young man and also brother of the deceased, commands the army of young people taking possession of the buildings and preparing to face the authorities. with force unless they reveal the names of the murderers. In the opening minutes of “Athena,” it’s clear that this is propulsive cinema with thematic substance.
As families evacuate the area, complications mount. since an individual known to have perpetrated anti-government terrorist acts resides in Athena and a drug trafficker, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) – coincidentally is also a brother of Abdel and Karim – is also hiding there.
When a new battalion of law enforcement arrives, the camera focuses on a fresh-faced white policeman, Jerome (Anthony Bajon), ostensibly announcing that he will become a hostage to pressure the establishment into meets their requirements.
Part of the feel that this is an epic battle between the forces of good and evil, almost in a sacred sense, is composer Surkin’s dark operatic score (“Gener8ion”) that folds in chorus to exalt the serious stakes at stake. A towering shot of Karim towering over the fortress he and his comrades have erected, and the media attention their just battle has garnered, is made all the more heroic as the music soars.
Like co-screenwriter Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated debut, “Les Miserables,” Gavras’ latest film falls into heavy messaging and sketchy narrative elements. That all the main characters are brothers, each of them representing a distinct point of view within their traditional community, sounds too dramatically contrived. Exploring the limits of brotherhood, and in this case the ideological fractures that may threaten it, may very well be the goal of Gavras, Ly and co-writer Elias Belkeddar, but in this context their convenient approach makes “Four Brothers (2005) more believable.
Thinking back to the last scene in “Les Miserables,” where a group of mostly black teenagers in a marginalized neighborhood fight the police in an apartment complex, “Athena” feels like an extension of that sequence into a feature film premise. Yet Gavras’ orchestration reflects the urgency of the cause in the visual energy of cinema: a perpetual state of disarray choreographed to appear organically designed.
The impact of the thrilling images is based on the ferocious force of the performances. Slimane’s stoic expression playing someone who can barely contain the rage-laden grief that runs through his entire body makes it impossible to ignore, even for a second, the boundless determination that fuels his character, Karim. For Benssalah as the conflicted Abdel, the depiction shifts from his initial attempts at de-escalation – maintaining his cop status above all else – to a terrifying state of visceral fury.
But despite all the Gavras’ remarkable direction and incendiary central themes, “Athena” still maintains some of the tropes familiar to tales of the mistreated and abused standing up against their tormentors. Towards the end, as the confrontation reaches shocking and deadly heights, one might be led to believe that the filmmaker will cross an unspoken line in the sand and not force the victim to be the bigger person so as not to become like his enemy.
And while one can understand the apprehensive instinct not to allow its protagonists to engage in primal retribution in this story, what ensues is instead more symbolic, and perhaps less interesting, transgressive. , in its denouement. Additionally, the creators decide to add an unnecessary epilogue that somewhat answers one of the film’s central questions but doesn’t elevate our insight much beyond what we already knew about the unseen inciting incident that took place. gave way to tumultuous intrigue.
The parallels between “Athena” and the most iconic wok in Gavras senior’s catalog, “Z”, are not hard to see. Both reflect a societal discontent with those in power and the determination of a handful of citizens to oppose their impositions and assaults. Gavras may not yet have produced such an inescapable work as his father’s masterpiece, but both stem from the same spirit of resistance, visual vigor and desire to use cinema as a tool of reflection.
“Athena” preview September 23 on Netflix US