Athena, the newest movie from music video director Romain Gavras, is a one-trick pony, however that trick is so formally dazzling that the film is an enrapturing expertise. Composed of a number of prolonged, labyrinthine takes spaced out by historically edited scenes, it follows three French-Algerian brothers in Paris — younger and middle-aged adults from totally different walks of life — thrown into disarray within the speedy aftermath of a harrowing household tragedy.
Their youngest sibling, a baby named Idir, has been murdered, and the culprits caught on digital camera look like French police. The oldest brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), is a drug and weapons trafficker who solely seems out for himself. Center brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is a profession soldier devoted to preserving order. Essentially the most flammable piece of the puzzle, nonetheless, is the youngest surviving brother, Karim (Sami Slimane), a charismatic chief with mournful, sunken eyes, who sparks a riot in his housing undertaking that shortly spreads throughout the town.
The movie’s introductory sequence units the stage for quite a few spectacular tableaus of state violence and anti-fascist rebellion, every of which begins as a private portrait earlier than pulling out to disclose a much bigger image. It opens throughout a stilted police press convention about Idir’s killing, the place Abdel occurs to be current and in uniform. The scene ignites when a gaggle of offended demonstrators lobs a Molotov cocktail on the pulpit. The following unbroken take lasts greater than 10 minutes.
Although the sequence begins in a extremely sterilized setting, it quickly explodes into white-knuckle chaos, following Karim and dozens of different black-clad protesters as they not solely commandeer weapons and police automobiles, however drive them throughout the town in a high-octane chase, again to the makeshift fort they’ve constructed on the Athena housing advanced (named, fittingly, for the Olympian goddess of battle technique).
This eruption, it appears, was a very long time coming. Slightly than retreading and reexplaining the encircling politics — as in america, police killings of civilians and the next protests have dominated headlines in France for years — Athena opens throughout a wide ranging climax that continues for almost all of its 97 minutes. What we’re witnessing in watching Athena is the beginning of an inevitable warfare.
Gavras captures it with cranes, drones, and methods that defy logic, and frames it with tons of upon tons of of extras in winding and massive patterns. It’s tactile, but ethereal. The digital camera dips between automobiles, taking pictures them from throughout the road like passing chariots, then rides up alongside them and dives inside them with the characters, earlier than pulling again out once more to seize the head-spinning scale of the uproar.
Gavras’ body on the motion costs from one second of violent resistance to the subsequent at breakneck velocity, hinting at how widespread this furor already is by the point the movie begins. However the staging of this opening scene additionally serves a second operate. It offers us the lay of the land, an in depth sense not simply of the film’s visible and emotional texture, however of the streets between the police station and Athena, the place numerous onlookers line the rooftops and cheer Karim on, and the place the remainder of the story is about to unfold. Earlier than lengthy, neighboring housing tasks announce their allegiance to Athena, like kingdoms becoming a member of the fray in Center-earth.
Hardly ever has a film so mimicked the sensation of using a rollercoaster, with peaks and valleys that construct to rushes of adrenaline, rigorously resetting earlier than every subsequent drop. Abdel and Karim lead opposing costs, as tides of SWAT groups invade fortified buildings stuffed with rioters. In the meantime, their half-brother Moktar weaves out and in of each plots, defending his enterprise pursuits in the beginning, when he could possibly be aiding both aspect. The three brothers characterize sides of French society in microcosm: the oppressor, the oppressed, and the moneyed third events who profit both manner, whether or not or not they change into concerned. Their symbolism results in a streamlined story that sidesteps the necessity for an excessive amount of exposition about who, what, or why.
The story is straightforward, however it runs the chance of being too easy. By throwing the viewers headfirst into the mayhem, Gavras obscures a number of the extra easy emotional materials. Athena facilities on a vicious killing, and the next plot performs like a magnified externalization of grief that, after quite a few such state-sanctioned executions, has grown uncontainable. However the viewers is rarely afforded the prospect to ruminate on this grief, or to really really feel it by way of the brothers’ eyes. Though the movie often slows right down to depict tender moments of communal mourning within the trio’s Muslim group (together with a fleeting encounter with the brothers’ mom), there’s no pause to get to know the brothers outdoors their prescribed roles as symbols for bigger unrest.
That mentioned, whereas the movie seldom dramatizes their emotional wounds, this symbolic depiction additionally lends itself to the aesthetic method Gavras has employed all through his profession. Whereas Gavras has made two different narrative options (Our Day Will Come and The World is Yours), he’s greatest identified for his blistering music movies, notably M.I.A.’s “Born Free,” which sees militarized police systematically searching redheads in a fantasy-racism state of affairs, and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” which options a number of the most hanging imagery of fiery protest in fashionable media.
Athena performs like a characteristic model of the visible fixations in these movies — compressed tales the place brutal state violence is a preexisting situation whose root diagnoses are an afterthought, however whose terminal signs Gavras explores in stark, visceral hues. (The movie can also be, in subtler methods, a successor to Gavras’ video for “Signature” by his late good friend DJ Mehdi, a vivid depiction of a suburban group the place the digital camera captures element and lived expertise by transferring by way of communal areas.)
Athena is arguably a style-over-substance film, given how little time and a spotlight it devotes to the private drama underlying its politics. However in Gavras’ arms, the fashion can also be the substance, with a restrained classicism giving approach to baroque staging as every lengthy take accelerates. Scenes construct in ways in which really feel each narratively inevitable and visually prophetic. Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard appear to be exploring the hidden dimensions of those police-and-protester clashes by way of motion — not solely the motion of their topics, however the motion of their digital camera, which tilts and turns as if to seize each potential vantage. Pace the movie up any additional, and also you’re left with one thing approaching cubist artwork, with dimensions and views virtually overlapping amid all of the pandemonium.
The rehearsed nature of every lengthy take isn’t only a neat gimmick, the way in which it arguably is in Sam Mendes’ 1917, a warfare movie whose fake one-take design loses perspective on the characters’ environment, inflicting its stress to dissipate. As a substitute, the choreography in Athena is its personal symphony, putting the dwelling, respiratory particulars of the brothers’ atmosphere in its crosshairs with each flip, because it builds to moments of darkness swiftly consumed by flame. Thick smoke and flying embers quickly change into its default lingua franca, as if it had been an up-tempo remix of Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. The music, by Gavras’ personal collaborative undertaking Gener8ion, combines booming, Hans Zimmer-esque percussion with operatic vocalizations in a set state of crescendo. The music, just like the picture, not often stops transferring or progressing, however round every nook lies some new and stunning confrontation, so it by no means loses steam.
Gavras shot Athena with IMAX cameras, which makes it all of the extra ripe for viewing as an arresting visible spectacle in the beginning. (Its stateside theatrical launch, sadly, was restricted to per week on one New York display.) That mentioned, a small-screen viewing on Netflix continues to be prone to really feel emotionally charged, since one other key ingredient is the filmmaker Ladj Ly, who co-wrote Athena with Gavras and producer Elias Belkeddar. Ly was the director behind the 2019 Les Misérables, a contemporary retelling of the Victor Hugo novel that was nominated for Greatest Worldwide Function Movie on the 92nd Academy Awards. Like Athena, it zeroes in on tensions between French police and communities of colour, and it equally results in climactic eruptions.
His tackle Les Misérables is a implausible movie, and whereas his method is extra measured (and arguably extra nuanced) than Athena’s, combining Ly’s group focus with Gavras’ audacious, mile-a-minute stylings leads to a handful of quiet moments. These punctuate the turmoil, permitting transient however risky respites. Earlier than the viewers is aware of it, the characters are again into the fray, right into a chaotic world that threatens to devour them. And their very own irrepressible fury is simply as harmful. With Athena, Gavras transforms that anger into dwelling dioramas which are so technically jaw-dropping that they change into emotionally rousing too.
Athena streams on Netflix starting Sept. 23.