'Athena' evaluation: The fiery French drama largely blows smoke

Romain Gavras’ “Athena” opens with a single-take sequence so intricately choreographed, and so breathtaking in its seen sweep and emotional stress, it’s virtually a disgrace that there’s one other ninety minutes or so of film to affiliate with it. It begins at a information convention the place a French soldier, Abdel (Dali Benssalah), gravely acknowledges the current killing of his thirteen-yr-previous brother, Idir, all by means of an apparent altercation with police. The tragic incident — the third event of police brutality in two months, blares a information report — was captured in a video that’s since gone viral; with the group in an uproar, Abdel has been recognized as upon, at good private value, to assist administration the harm. however that purpose is clearly futile as quickly as one other man, Karim (Sami Slimane), hurls a Molotov cocktail, igniting this tinderbox of a film and turning these already tense environs proper into a full-blown battle zone.

Gavras’ dedication to film all this mayhem in a single shot — or one factor that seems an terrible lot like one shot — forges a seen hyperlink between Abdel and Karim, which is hardly an accident. It’s quickly revealed that the two males are brothers, although their shared grief at Idir’s dying has pulled them in radically completely different instructions. The shot retains unspooling, by no means blinking: With pulse-pounding virtuosity (the cinematography is by Matias Boucard), the digicam plunges after Karim and completely different offended youthful males as they ransack the police station, steal a cache of weapons after which joyride their strategy again to the Athena housing property they name dwelling. And this place is their dwelling, a sentiment they underscore by unfurling a French tricolor alongside the best strategy: It’s a defiant declaration of belonging in a rustic that hasn’t always claimed them in return.

earlier than prolonged, one other flag — an Algerian flag — will burst into the physique, an emblem of these youthful males’s North African lineage that subtly ties “Athena” to any quantity of political thrillers about French colonialism and Algerian resistance. on the identical time, the emphasis on police brutality carries a topical edge that transcends strict cultural and geographical borders; you’d possibly even be reminded of yankee headlines each current and distant. probability is you will even be reminded of 2019’s Oscar-nominated “Les Misérables,” a blistering banlieue drama written and directed by Ladj Ly. If “Athena” doesn’t obtain the identical power (even with Ly credited as a co-author with Gavras and Elias Belkeddar), it’s partly as a end result of its politics finally really feel like a feint — a prop in a narrative that cares much less about its characters, and the huge array of human experiences they characterize, than about its personal formal virtuosity.

nonetheless, let’s give that virtuosity its due. Gavras’ work right here might courtroom comparisons with the tense political thrillers made by his father, Costa-Gavras (“Z,” “lacking”), however his capability with the digicam has prolonged been in proof. (earlier than his earlier options, “Our Day Will Come” and “The World Is Yours,” he directed music movies for artists collectively with M.I.A., Jay-Z and Kanye West.) as a end result of of the magic of digital enhancing, the frilly prolonged-take sequences of the variety he makes an try right here might even be simpler to pull off than they have been when, say, Orson Welles was taking pictures “contact of Evil.” nonetheless, Gavras reveals spectacular dedication to the approach as he plunges Athena (or “Athena!” to guage by the rallying cries of the gang) proper into a state of siege. The digicam retains transferring and transferring as chaos erupts, offended male our bodies jostle every completely different inside the physique, and sparks and flares mild up the night sky, illuminating a battlefield stuffed with helmets and riot shields. The bodily verisimilitude is each jolting and enveloping.

As a sustained piece of movement choreography, then, “Athena” is incessantly staggering. As a drama about police violence, the woes of a protracted-ignored underclass and the complexities of up so far French id, the film feels skinny and overdetermined. Gavras has composed the story as a sweeping symphony of civil unrest, pushed to grimly operatic heights by the depth of the performances, the wailing choral crescendos of Gener8ion’s rating and, above all, the unyielding gaze of the digicam. He lunges for every the urgency of a information headline and the fatalism of a Greek tragedy, which primarily means he proffers gritty realism with one hand and embraces bald contrivances with the various.

A man in protective police gear.

Anthony Bajon inside the film “Athena.”


There’s one factor a bit too dramatically expedient with regard to the best strategy “Athena” facilities its story on not two however three squabbling brothers, every representing a distinctive face of immigrant rage. For a whereas, Abdel is the peacemaker caught inside the center, decided to quell unrest and assist the residents of Athena evacuate safely. Karim, his prolonged hair marking him as this story’s romantic revolutionary, needs Idir’s killers publicly recognized and delivered to justice, and he’s eager to make a hostage of a youthful cop (a sympathetic Anthony Bajon) to make constructive that occurs. The eldest of the siblings is Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a drug vendor making an try to smuggle his strategy out of a nightmarish state of affairs. in distinction to his brothers, he cares and stands for nothing besides his earnings.

As forcefully inhabited as these characters are — particularly by Benssalah and Slimane, who make Abdel and Karim’s concord as palpable as their fury — they hardly ever come throughout as better than gadgets moved about at will in a fiery, doom-laden chess sport. a lot extra of a cipher is Sébastien (Alexis Manenti), a mysterious decide — however not, fortunately, one other brother — who skulks with wordless menace throughout the periphery of the story, then ushers it in direction of its grim if spectacularly photogenic finale. In these moments, “Athena” reveals it likes to play with fireplace, although primarily attributable to how cool it appears.


In French and Arabic with English subtitles

rating: R, for language and violence

working time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

having fun with: begins Sept. 23 on Netflix