Designed as something akin to a Greek tragedy for today’s moment, Venice Film Festival Competition title Athena is a torrent, an inundation, a cascade of rage, fury and frustration over the realities of life for a particular group of French families. Such conditions exist in most societies, some more dire than others, but here the wages of pent-up anger are presented with a single-minded intensity and extended duration that would be hard to exceed.
Following in the powerful wake of the 2019 Oscar-nominated sensation Les Misérables, which was also set in a teeming eastern suburb of Paris rarely seen by outsiders, director Romain Gavras and his co-writers Elias Belkeddar and Les Misérables director Ladj Ly use undiluted adrenalin and immersive you-are-there camerawork to plunge you into the middle of a classical drama for modern times. The Netflix-backed film grabs you by the throat and barely allows you a moment for a gasp of air.
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Were they exposed to a random few minutes of this film, most citizens of the world would never imagine that they were glimpsing Paris, based on the predominantly dark-skinned faces, blandly impersonal apartment towers, unfamiliar vocabulary, pronounced poverty and sense of lingering threat. In fact, the area is currently undertaking new transportation improvements, but the filmmakers’ interest lies strictly in the suffocating oppression, marginalization, lack of opportunity and explosive potential, which, at least as depicted in the film, remain dire.
Athena, lest we forget, was the Greek deity of wisdom and war. For the moment, in any case, the wisdom part of the equation has been shoved aside by the fomenter of conflict. As depicted here, the people of the titular community are essentially without hope, their lives lived in veritable cages, cramped flats in soulless modern housing projects. Just 10 miles from the center of Paris, they are stuck, the young men furious, beyond hope.
All this is taken as a given by the filmmakers, who feel the need to explain nothing; the anger and frustration are all that matter to those on or over the edge. Gavras, the son of famed Z director Costa Gavras and the maker of many music videos, shorts and commercials as well as two previous features, takes the ball from Ladj Ly and immediately cranks up the tension ten-fold. A long, seamless opening shot transitions from a single building to all over the neighborhood in a startling visual manifestation of “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” Spielberg’s West Side Story looks like child’s play compared to the way this was shot on the streets.
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The power and inclusivity of this sequence is extraordinary; a bit of a stunt, perhaps, but an undeniably breathtaking one, a cinematic high-wire act made possible by great imagination, stopwatch timing and technical resources only recently perfected. So powerful and extreme is it that you wonder where it can go from here.
With this technology at hand, the answer is: everywhere and nowhere. Seemingly unconstrained, Gavras and his cinematographer Matias Boucard create a constant flow of urban rapids that’s ever-pushing the viewer and the film to various indoor and outdoor locations in what feels like — but isn’t always — real time. The action takes place on the edge of oblivion, and yet it’s clearly been choreographed (and perhaps visually enhanced digitally) to ensure that the action flows with a fluid sense of purpose.
The tragedy is set off by the death of the youngest of four brothers in an apparent police incident. The middle brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a soldier in the French army, returns home from the frontline and wants to keep things calm and let justice take its course. Eldest brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), is a self-absorbed merchant focused on his own shady dealings.
But then there’s hot-headed youngster Karim (Sami Slimane), whose immediate instinct is to riot in the streets and burn everything down; he wants revenge and he wants it now. Arguments, anguished feelings and violent impulses ensue, and the film that emerges is all movement and mayhem, shouting and screaming and flailing about for lack of any more concrete or useful way to address the tragedy. Anger and hopelessness scorch every scene of the film.
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Dramatically, Athena proceeds like a series of tense and dire situations far more than like a story. Most important to the filmmakers is the sense of immersion. Take after take goes on for minutes, which vastly intensifies the sense of claustrophobia and being stuck in a place with no way out. Restlessly and relentlessly, the camera swooshes up and down, inside and out, right up against faces; the style decisively achieves its aim of making the environs feel inescapable.
But there is also a pronounced elegance to it; this is neither the rough but spirited style of the French New Wave directors nor the hand-held work of Cassavetes and New York street documentarians of half a century ago. To the contrary, there is real majesty here and the long takes are both very carefully planned and full of surprises; the inspired extended sequences of Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 landmark I Am Cuba, shot in Havana, come immediately to mind.
A great amount of technical wizardry was clearly involved in achieving the uninterrupted stream of images that surges through the film; devotes of ambitious mise-en-scene and adventurous one-take cinema will be amazed and impressed by what Gavras and Boucard have achieved here.
It would be foolish to deny that, at times, the style doesn’t overwhelm and, in fact, obscure, the admittedly meager story, or that the dramatic pitch is too consistently high to be maintained for a feature running time. The film is dominated by yelling and screaming. But the 97 minutes go by like a flash and there are any number of astonishing moments when you wonder how the filmmakers pulled off such intense and prolonged shots, all in the interest of augmenting the tension and fury of it all. It’s not a style appropriate for most films, but it keeps you riveted for every moment of this one.
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