THE STORY – Hours after the tragic death of their youngest brother in unexplained circumstances, three siblings have their lives thrown into chaos. When the unexplained circumstances raise questions among them, they go in search of answers.
THE CAST – Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek & Alexis Manenti
THE TEAM – Romain Gavras (Director/Writer) Ladj Ly & Elias Belkeddar (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
One hand holds a flaming match, the other a Molotov cocktail about to be lit. The setting is a police precinct in Athena, a fictional suburb just outside of Paris, where a press conference is being held by top cop Abdel (Dali Benssalah), fielding questions about the murder of a 13-year-old boy, apparently beaten to death by police. As Abdel’s remarks conclude, the lit bottle is thrown, and the precinct explodes into flame, igniting the remarkable 15-minute single take that kicks off director Roman Gavras’ new political thriller, “Athena.”
At that moment, Gavras immerses us in the chaos that follows the blast with a single tracking shot that bobs and weaves from room to room, picking up and dropping characters willy-nilly until finally resting on the two protagonists for whom this fight is the most personal, as Abdel comes face to face with the man who threw the bomb — his brother Karim (Sami Slimane) — with each man in his own way seeking justice for their youngest brother, who just happens to be the boy who was murdered.
“Athena,” with its very title evoking Greek tragedy, sets its brother vs. brother struggle amid the unrest among Paris’ economically disadvantaged, where differences between races and religions have brought political tensions to the boiling point. For Athena’s population of French/Algerian Muslims in particular, Karim’s firebomb is not the cause of the riot — it’s simply the last straw. If the film’s vibe of urban unrest is at times reminiscent of the recent French political drama “Les Misérables,” it’s little wonder — that Oscar nominee’s director Ladj Ly co-scripted “Athena” with Gavras and Elias Belkeddar, and much of the rage that fueled that earlier film is also the source of the underlying tension in “Athena.”
Still, one’s first takeaway from “Athena” is likely to be its relentless pace. From the moment Karim’s bomb explodes, Gavras hits the gas at 100 mph and rarely, if ever, lets up. Yes, he may pause now and then to introduce a new character or two or add one plot or another, but then it’s back into overdrive at a pace that can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating. (Couldn’t two characters just sit down and have a cup of coffee now and then?) Yet, just when you’re ready to give up on Gavras offering any kind of nuance, he’ll come up with a moment — a movement or a gesture, perhaps — that pulls you right back into the characters and the tragic path in which their lives are careening.
In a film where everyone is either running toward or running away from something, it’s an enormous challenge for an actor to carve out the time to establish a memorable character, and here several potentially rich characters are not as developed as they might have been in a more leisurely paced film. Instead, Gavras chooses to keep the focus on the sibling storyline and, fortunately, has cast two actors more than up to the task. As Abdel, Benssalah would at first appear to be a standard-issue movie hero — square-jawed, broad-shouldered, and moving with authority. But Benssalah plants enough seeds early to suggest that the character may be more than what he seems, so the transition is seamless when his character must shift in the third act. And to play the charismatic rebel leader, Gavras has a real find in Slimane. His penetrating eyes render gravitas, yet the way he aggressively carries himself suggests a younger brother trying to get out from under the shadow of his older sibling. His near-constant movement is an excellent choice by the actor and meshes easily with Gavras’s driving pace.
A word too about the cinematography by Matias Boucard, which rocks, not just for the bravura tracking shots, but, in the film’s few quiet moments, capturing the dull light of those parts of the urban landscape that never seem to see the sun. It’s lovely work. Special mention should be given to editor Benjamin Weill and his team for keeping up with Gavras’ propulsive pace and maintaining the film’s flow even when the narrative gets stretched thin.
It may be understandable that the non-stop movement in “Athena” might be a bit much for audiences accustomed to a more reflective look at the haves and have-nots in French society. But the muscular directing style that Gavras brings to “Athena” perfectly matches the intensity of his characters’ yearning for justice. At its best, “Athena” is a piercing cry for help that also manages to touch the heart.