VOD film review: Athena
James R | On 24, Sep 2022
Director: Romain Gavras
Cast: Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Ouassini Embarek
“Why don’t you want it all to burn down after what they did?” That’s the question asked of Abdel halfway through Athena, Romain Gavras’ incendiary thriller. By this point, the fuse has already been lit and things are well and truly going up in smoke.
The fire is started by the death of Idir, apparently at the hands of the French police. Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a soldier and police officer, is one of Idir’s three older French-Algerian brothers. While Abdel trusts in the concept of justice and authority, the younger Karim (Sami Slimane) is a rebellious hothead who swiftly assembles an army to make justice happen on his own terms. Eldest stepbrother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), meanwhile, is a drug dealer who’s more concerned with keeping his business going. As the unrest rapidly spreads across the Athena housing estate on the fringes of Paris, the siblings’ opposing worldviews set them on a collision course destined to echo the Greek tragedy of the film’s title.
There are lots of lingering questions and simmering tensions to be unpicked here, and the script – co-written by Gavras with Elias Belkaddar and Ladj Ly – brilliantly condenses the complex moral and social themes into the three perspectives of the lead characters. One is an oppressor who trusts the blaze will be extinguished, one is determined for it to tear the whole system down, and the other just wants to profit from it.
But what’s universally understood is that this inferno is inevitable – the film follows on from Ladj Ly’s own thriller Les Misérables, which captured the underlying divisions in modern society fuelled by police brutality, oppression, poverty, inequality and corruption. Where that ended with the promise of an eruption, Gavras opts for something even more explosive, beginning with a molotov cocktail thrown by Karim – a gesture that immediately sends things teetering into chaos.
A bravura 10-minute opening shot unfolds in a single take, not only visibly spelling out the gulf between the police station and the apartment blocks where resistance is brewing, but also locking us firmly into the inescapable, spiralling chaos. Like a cross between Danish thriller Shorta and The Raid, the immediacy of each escalating incident reinforces the timely nature of the cumulative violence and disorder. Gavras choreographs it all with astonishing co-ordination, marshalling huge crowds of extras and elaborate chase sequences with a mind-blowing combination of drones and handhelds.
The ensuing rush risks taking away from the emotional weight at the film’s core – one moment of communal mourning and a brief encounter with the boys’ mother are, of course, disrupted – but the excellent cast make sure we don’t lose sight of the brothers’ grief and intense reactions, while also highlighting the bleak consequences of violence responding to violence. The result is a dazzling mix of form and content, of style and substance working seamlessly in tandem – a visceral, alarming triumph.