Social conflict is one of the best sources of drama in history. Throughout the years, the struggles between the classes, the races, and the different cultures that inhabit our world have been the main detonators of almost every war in history. We cannot deal with that which is different, we can only destroy it and hope that makes us feel better. It is a very grim and desperate struggle, but it is one that is lived every single day in every country on this planet Earth. Athena, the new Netflix film of the week, paints a perfect example of this social anxiety.
Athena is directed by Romain Gavras, and stars Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, and Ouassini Embarek. The film tells the tragic story of the Athena estate, a collection of buildings where a massive Muslim community lives their lives. After the death of a young kid at the hands of police forces, the estate has been taken by the angry youth of the area, led by the victim’s older brother Karim. Abdel, the oldest brother in the family, will try to talk his younger brother down from doing violence, but the anger that breeds from the injustice might be too great.
Roman Gavras has made a name for himself by directing some impressive films and music videos. His style is that of power and strength, action and spectacle. The energy that comes out of his films is massive, and while the stories might not be as impressive as they should be, the visual component is strong enough to make you watch from beginning to end. Athena, Gavras’ latest film, falls into that same category. The film is full of energy, but the story lacks punch and also a bit of coherence.
Athena starts with one of the most intense and well-shot intros in recent memory. The film is done under the gimmick of a set of continuous shots. This is not like 1917, where the entire film seems to be made of a single shot. Gavras cuts here and there when the action is needed, or it seems impossible to cut to another point of view using the same camera. However, most of the sequences are very long seamless one-shots, and they are quite impressive.
The level of choreography throughout the entirety of the first half of the film is truly majestic. The number of extras on set and the camera work are truly fantastic. The camera moves with a level of fluidity that often makes you forget it is there, recording everything that is happening. Probs also to the stunning editing job of Benjamin Weill, who makes each shot flow with intent, and energy and covers all with those trick shots that make the scene flow as if it was a real continuous shot. Many movies try to apply this gimmick, and they often fail because the editing reveals the trick quite easily.
On top of the majestic first half of the movie when it comes to visuals and energy. The acting is also quite impressive. The young Sami Slimane is a force to reckon with, and he looks really cool as the inciting force of the massive riot. The actor plays Karim as a man on a mission, but one that has lost sight of the objective and wanders lost without a clear vision of what to do. Karim then becomes as sad as he is cool, and as he moves through Athena, you can feel every step. It is a fantastic performance.
Benssalah also plays an excellent role as Abdel. The role is as intense as Karim’s but in a more conventional way. The actor plays perfectly the role of a man trapped between his loyalty to his country and his loyalty to his family. Of course, such a conflict of interest can only lead to tragedy, but Benssalah plays it extremely well. The way he starts at the beginning of the film and the way the character ends is truly something to behold.
However, while Athena is truly powerful and energetic, there are some things that stop it from being a truly epic film. As we said before, the script is quite thin. There is a plot, of course, but the events are never too out there, and because everything needs to happen inside a very limited area, the events that the movie is allowed to depict are also very limited. It is just the nature of a movie that sets itself up to play only within the confines of the continuous one shot.
The fantastic energy of the first half of the film also begins to dilute very quickly as we enter the second half. The gimmicky continuous shots become more and more reserved, and the movie loses its strength. It is very hard to go from beginning to end with the same kind of intensity. Not many films are able to do it. However, this loss of strength is reflected in the story as well, so it might be a conscious decision to go this way. Nevertheless, the fact remains that as the movie progresses, it becomes less and less captivating.
Athena is a fantastic watch. On a technical level, this must be one of the best things coming out of France in recent years. This type of film is often reserved only for action cinema, but Athena manages to mix that with a potent social commentary. The ending might divide people, as it basically turns things on their heads and might have lost the point of the entire film. Either way, Athena must be seen. It is truly a very solid film.