Perhaps, the best thing about Athena is the fact that it feels like a true-blue movie experience; a real “let’s go to the theatres and watch this” film, despite it being distributed by Netflix.
Director Romain Gavras’ filmmaking style and the cinematography, alongside a stunning soundtrack, is bound to leave you spellbound.
Set in a French banlieue, the action-drama documents the day-long events in the neighbourhood of Athena, in the wake of the killing of Idir, a French-Algerian. It primarily focuses on Idir’s brothers: Karim (Sami Slimane), a hot-blooded community leader who is on the prowl for the cops responsible for his brother’s death with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a decorated soldier in the French Army who is determined that following “due process” will beget justice for his brother; and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) an opportunist drug dealer who tries to make a quick buck during times of instability and their tryst with revenge, justice and peace. The brothers, over the course of ninety minutes, chart out the limited possibilities available to immigrants to navigate a system that is built to fail them.
The opening sequence of the film, which lasts just over ten minutes, is enough to put you on the edge of your seat for the rest of the duration. It begins with Abdel at a press conference, assuring everyone that the authorities concerned are doing everything in their power to bring Idir’s murderers to justice. Karim, who is present in the crowd, does not utter a word, but lights up a Molotov cocktail and hurls it at the stage, setting into motion a chain of events that bring the rebels and police into a tense confrontation on the streets of Athena.
The plot is straightforward and Gavras does not delve into flashbacks to reason with the audience, making his artfully-choreographed sequences exceptionally volatile. While the frames are tight, the sequences are long enough for the characters to write themselves. The concise plot also helps heighten the anxiety of the film and bring the French political milieu to the fore.
Actors Sami Slimane and Dali Benssalah are phenomenal in their roles as embattled brothers immersed in grief.
However, the movie fumbles right when it reaches its crescendo; a confrontation between Karim and Abdel, that ends in Abdel extinguishing the fire began by yet another of Karim’s Molotovs. It dilutes its critique of police brutality and veers towards events that seem to venture into the realm of conspiracies. The narrative loses a sense of direction, especially with the character of Sebastian taking prominence towards the end.
However, the biggest qualm with the narrative is the absence of female characters. In an attempt to flex his filmmaking muscle, Gavras excludes women from his revolution; the name of the neighbourhood that forms the backdrop of his battleground makes this decision even more ironic.
Despite its flaws, Athena is rousing, explosive and makes for a great cinematic experience.
Athena is currently streaming on Netflix.