REVIEW: “Athena” (2022)

“Athena” opens with a powerful closeup of a man named Abdel. The camera stays firmly locked onto his solemn face as he walks through a police station and outside to an awaiting crowd of reporters. He steps up to a podium to issue a family statement following the death of his 13-year-old kid brother Idir who was allegedly killed by police brutality. Abdel says all the usual things: a plea for peace, it’s a difficult time for their family, and that the police have pledged to conduct a thorough investigation.

But in the back of the crowd, Abdel’s brother Karim (Sami Slimane in his screen debut) stands seething with anger. He lights a Molotov cocktail and heaves it at the police station, sending everyone scrambling and igniting a meticulously orchestrated riot. All of this is captured through one jaw-dropping single take as DP Matias Boucard’s camera sticks to the rioters as they storm and ransack the police station and then make their escape to the massive housing project called Athena, which Karim and his hundreds of rage-filled followers immediately turn into a fortress.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

This incredible opening sets the table for “Athena”, the latest film from French director Romain Gavras. It’s a movie with so much to admire, especially from a technical standpoint. It’s hard not be impressed with the sheer spectacle Gavras and Boucard bring to the screen. Their heavy emphasis on choreography may come at a price (more on that in a second), but it gives the movie an explosive and propulsive energy. And while it never cinematically matches the sheer intensity and craftsmanship of its opening, “Athena” keeps you riveted throughout by its visuals alone.

But as I said, its kinetic presentation comes at a cost. With “Athena”, it’s the characters who suffer most. The emotions we see from the key players are raw and genuine. But the movie is content with simply telling us how they feel rather than meaningfully exploring those feelings (the closest we get to emotional complexity is Abdel). Gavras teases us with deeper feeling (there’s a powerful scene with Karim tearfully staring at a picture of his deceased brother – one of the film’s few still moments). Otherwise it’s all rage and not much else.

Of the characters, Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is by far the most detailed. He’s a decorated French soldier just back from a tour in Mali, so he has a good understanding of war and its consequences. For that reason, Abdel seeks the peaceful, patient resolution. But with his brother leading a violent uprising, he’s caught between stopping a potentially deadly showdown and standing with his family. Karim is an interesting character and Slimane makes his fury palpable. But he’s little more than an avatar of rage. There’s a third player – Abdel and Karim’s underdeveloped stepbrother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek). He’s unhinged and most worried about the attention Karim’s revolt will bring to his drug business.

Their family dynamic is volatile, but nothing like the tinderboxes Karim’s actions ignite all across France. As a cellphone video of three police officers brutally beating Idir goes viral, tensions reach a dangerous high. The police claim it wasn’t their officers in the video. The marginalized, mostly Algerian communities point to other recent cases of police misconduct that were swept under the rug. Karim harnesses that anger in his revolt, which evolves into urban warfare once police converge on Athena. And after Karim takes a nervous and overwhelmed young officer Jérôme (Anthony Bajon) hostage, the situation with the cops and between the brothers intensifies.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Amid the mace, batons, and beanbag guns of the police and the lead pipes, Molotovs, and fireworks of the Athenians, the family drama ends up underserved. This really stands out with one particular character twist that’s pivotal to the story yet desperately in need of buildup and detail. And the film needs more of the quieter moments, such as the scenes with the worried mother of the brothers trying to reach her sons on their phones. It’s a small touch, but a powerful one.

Despite throwing out some intensely relevant themes, the movie plays as more of an visually mesmerizing adrenaline jolt than any kind of intellectual challenge. And the emotions, which are real and comprehensible, feel more like a catalyst for the action than something we’re allowed to explore. But that’s not to say “Athena” is toothless. It may rely too heavily on its amazing visual craftsmanship, but the themes (though only scratched upon) are there. And watching society crumble and violence beget violence on screen is affecting, from the film’s astonishing opening to its gut-punch final shot. “Athena” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

9 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Athena” (2022)

  1. Incredibly deep movie. Truly gut wrenching at times. Perfectly directed and filmed. I’ve covered 100’s of riots and this is one of the few times I’ve seen them accurately represented on the big screen. And that includes street fighting in Athena (Athens). Great Review.

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