Athena review: Netflix’s stunning antifa action movie brings the fire

AthenaThe latest music video from Romain Gavras is called “Empire”. Although it is only one trick, this movie is so visually stunning that it is an unforgettable experience. Composed of several lengthy, labyrinthine takes spaced out by traditionally edited scenes, it follows three French-Algerian brothers in Paris — young and middle-aged adults from different walks of life — thrown into disarray in the immediate aftermath of a harrowing family tragedy.

Their youngest sister, Idir, was killed and the perpetrators, as captured on video, appear to have been French police. Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), the older brother, is a drug- and weapons dealer who only cares for himself. Abdel, a soldier by trade who is dedicated to maintaining order, is middle brother. Karim, the youngest of three brothers, (Sami Slimane), is the most volatile piece. He’s charismatic and has mournful sunken eyes. His riot quickly spreads throughout the city.

The film’s introductory sequence sets the stage for numerous impressive tableaus of state violence and anti-fascist uprising, each of which begins as a personal portrait before pulling out to reveal a bigger picture. It opens during a stilted police press conference about Idir’s killing, where Abdel happens to be present and in uniform. When a mob of demonstrators throws Molotov cocktails at the pulpit, it ignites. This unbroken sequence lasts for more than 10 minutes.

Police stream through the streets of Paris as a riot breaks out in Athena

Netflix Photo

Though the sequence begins in a highly sterilized setting, it rapidly explodes into white-knuckle chaos, following Karim and dozens of other black-clad protesters as they not only commandeer guns and police vehicles, but drive them across the city in a high-octane chase, back to the makeshift fort they’ve built at the Athena housing complex (named, fittingly, for the Olympian goddess of battle strategy).

It seems that this eruption was long overdue. Rather than retreading and reexplaining the surrounding politics — as in the United States, police killings of civilians and the subsequent protests have dominated headlines in France for years — AthenaThe film opens with a spectacular climax which lasts almost the entire 97 minutes. What we’re witnessing in watching AthenaIt is the beginning of an inexorable war.

Gavras captures the scene with drones and cranes and uses techniques that are beyond logic to frame it. He also adds hundreds and hundreds of additional elements in intricate and winding patterns. It’s tactile, yet ethereal. Camera moves in a zigzag fashion between vehicles. It then follows the characters and rides alongside them. Finally, it pulls out to take a picture of the uproar.

Gavras’ frame on the action charges from one moment of violent resistance to the next at breakneck speed, hinting at how widespread this furor already is by the time the film begins. This opening scene has a secondary function. It gives us the lay of the land, a detailed sense not just of the movie’s visual and emotional texture, but of the streets between the police station and Athena, where countless onlookers line the rooftops and cheer Karim on, and where the rest of the story is set to unfold. Soon neighboring housing projects declare their support for Athena. It’s almost like joining Middle-earth’s fray.

A silhouetted figure holding a flaming Molotov cocktail stands on the streets of Paris in Athena

Netflix Photo

Rarely, a film has so accurately portrayed the thrill of riding a rollercoaster. There are peaks, valleys and adrenaline surges. Each drop is carefully timed. Abdel and Karim are the two opposing sides as waves of SWAT team invade fortified structures full of rioters. Their half-brother Moktar, who is protecting his business interests, weaves between the plots. He could also be helping either side. These three brothers, who are French sociologists in microcosm, represent different facets of French society: the oppressor and oppressed as well as the third party moneyed parties that can benefit both ways, regardless of their involvement. The simplicity of their symbolism allows for a simplified tale, which avoids too much detail about the who, what and why.

Although the story may seem simple, it is not without risk. You can also simple. Gavras flings the audience into chaos, obscuring some of the simpler emotional material. AthenaIt centers on a vicious murder and plays as a magnified externalization grief after many state-sanctioned executions. But the audience is never afforded the chance to ruminate on this grief, or to truly feel it through the brothers’ eyes. Even though the film occasionally slows down to depict tender moments of communal mourning in the trio’s Muslim community (including a fleeting encounter with the brothers’ mother), there’s no pause to get to know the brothers outside their prescribed roles as symbols for larger unrest.

Despite the fact that the movie rarely dramatizes the emotional pain of the characters, the symbolic portrayal lends itself well to the artistic approach Gavras used throughout his career. Gavras made another narrative feature (It’s Our Day Your World is Yours), he’s best known for his blistering music videos, particularly M.I.A.’s “Born Free,” which sees militarized police systematically hunting redheads in a fantasy-racism scenario, and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” which features some of the most striking imagery of fiery protest in popular media.

Athena plays like a feature version of the visual fixations in those videos — compressed stories where brutal state violence is a preexisting condition whose root diagnoses are an afterthought, but whose terminal symptoms Gavras explores in stark, visceral hues. (The film is also, in subtler ways, a successor to Gavras’ video for “Signature” by his late friend DJ Mehdi, a vivid depiction of a suburban community where the camera captures detail and lived experience by moving through communal spaces.)

AthenaIt is evident that the movie is more about its style than it does substance, considering how much time and effort it spends on the dramas that underpin its politics. But in Gavras’ hands, the style is also the substance, with a restrained classicism giving way to baroque staging as each long take accelerates. It is both visually and narratively obvious that scenes build. Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard seem to be exploring the hidden dimensions of these police-and-protester clashes through movement — not only the movement of their subjects, but the movement of their camera, which tilts and turns as if to capture every possible vantage. Speed the film up any further, and you’re left with something approaching cubist art, with dimensions and perspectives practically overlapping amid all the pandemonium.

A large group of protestors stand atop a building looking down in Athena

Netflix Photo

The rehearsed nature of each long take isn’t just a neat gimmick, the way it arguably is in Sam Mendes’ 1917, a war film whose faux one-take design loses perspective on the characters’ surroundings, causing its tension to dissipate. The choreography is instead Athena is its own symphony, placing the living, breathing details of the brothers’ environment in its crosshairs with every turn, as it builds to moments of darkness swiftly consumed by flame. Thick smoke and flying embers soon become its default lingua franca, as if it were an up-tempo remix of Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. The music, by Gavras’ own collaborative project Gener8ion, combines booming, Hans Zimmer-esque percussion with operatic vocalizations in a fixed state of crescendo. Like the image itself, music never stops progressing or moving. But around every corner is a new, surprising confrontation so it never loses its steam.

Gavras shot AthenaIt is equipped with IMAX cameras which make it ideal for watching as a stunning visual spectacle. It was only available for a limited time on one New York theater screen in the US. However, Netflix’s small screen viewing is likely to be emotionally charged. Ladj Li, the director, co-wrote this film. AthenaGavras with producer Elias Belkeddar. Ly was the Director behind 2019 Les Misérables, a contemporary retelling from the Victor Hugo book that won Best International Feature Film nomination at the 92nd Academy Awards. Similar films AthenaIt focuses on tensions between French police officers and French communities of color and leads to similar climactic eruptions.

He shares his view on Les Misérables This is a wonderful film. His approach is more measured and arguably more nuanced than the others. Athena’s, combining Ly’s community focus with Gavras’ audacious, mile-a-minute stylings results in a handful of quiet moments. These moments provide brief and volatile breaks from the turmoil. They are soon back in chaos and threaten to devour them before they even realize it. They are just as perilous due to their irrepressible fury. With AthenaGavras turns that anger into dioramas of living art that are technically impressive but also emotionally powerful.

Athena Netflix streams streaming videos starting Sept. 23.

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