Within “Athena’s” first ten minutes we witness a tense press conference erupt into violence, a raid on a police station by angry youths and a thrilling race back to their urban fortress with pillaged goods. Only after a barrage of breathless action and mind-boggling camerawork, when they mount the barricades in victory, does the director decide to call cut.
Gavras and his cinematographer Matias Boucard have concocted an all-timer of a tracking shot to kick off this new Netflix thriller, tailor-made to grab audiences by the throat. It’s the kind of long take that makes the opening of “Touch of Evil” look like it could’ve pulled its socks up; that makes the raid in “True Detective” look like a walk in the park. It’s an adrenaline shot to the heart and sets a pace impossible to maintain. But across 97 relentless, exhilarating minutes, this movie is going to try.
Karim (played by newcomer Sami Slimane) is grieving the loss of his younger brother, beaten to death by uniformed officers — the third case of police brutality in two months at Athena, an impoverished community on the outskirts of Paris. He wants names but the police deny responsibility. Their brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah, “No Time To Die”) is a soldier pleading for peace, while oldest brother Koktar (Ouassini Embarek) is a drug dealer worried a riot will be bad for business. Karim, meanwhile, has emerged as a figurehead ready to take a generation to battle.
Soon after the raid, police descend on Athena to face down the youths. Caught in between are their parents and extended families. The film questions their passivity while asking sympathy for them, as well as Jerome (Anthony Bajon), a frightened officer sent into the fray. But mainly we’re channelling Karim’s righteous anger, unpersuaded by his brothers’ interventions.
Gavras and co-writers Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar tell the story of the siege that follows nearly entirely within Athena’s concrete labyrinth, building around a series of long takes emphasizing the chaos of running skirmishes and Karim’s makeshift plans. Filmed with IMAX cameras, Molotov cocktails and Roman candles launch into the night; masses of bodies fill corridors, race across rooftops and crash into one another to the sound of a baroque score.
What if the Trojan War took place in a Parisian housing estate? It might look like this. With its clashing brothers, mythologized men and epic sense of scale, “Athena” is reminiscent of Greek tragedies of old. Yet its pains are rooted in the today — and they’re keenly felt. It’s a bravura piece of cinema from a general behind the camera; one that inevitably calls attention to the art of warfare that is filmmaking itself. The logistics of it all makes the head spin.
“Athena” is in select cinemas now and is available on Netflix September 23.
The interview: Romain Gavras, writer-director
Gavras, an alum of music videos including Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild,” is no stranger to capturing an uprising. But he’s never done it at this scale before — no wonder he cites epics like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” as inspirations for “Athena.”
“There’s no CGI in the film, we do everything for real,” Gavras says. “The planning, weirdly, was almost military and very precise to create chaos in front of the camera.”
To hear more from the writer-director, read our full interview.
One to stream now: “Saloum”
Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot delivers a lively midnight movie about three mercenaries on the run in a remote corner of Senegal. Yann Gael, Roger Sallah and Mentor Ba entertain as tough guy gunslingers, but their cocksure attitude is tested when a paranormal foe threatens them and their stash of gold. Herbulot’s twisty neo-Western (a “Southern,” he calls it) packs plenty of themes and undead West African history into its tight runtime. The spectre of colonialism and the exploitation of people and place loom large, offering a sombre note. Nevertheless, it’s good pulpy fun with a fierce imagination and eye-catching visual flair.
“Saloum” is available on Shudder in the US.
One to bookmark for later: “No Bears”
Every new Jafar Panahi movie feels like a small miracle. The Iranian director has been banned from leaving the country and from making films for more than a decade, yet he’s continued to find a way. In “No Bears,” Panahi plays a version of himself who’s travelled to a border village to remotely direct a movie in neighboring Turkey. He becomes trapped in a local dispute, accused of photographing a couple’s illicit encounter, the woman having been promised to another. Meanwhile, the real-life couple in his film plots an exodus. Borders of all kinds loom large. Harried by villagers who treat him and his camera with suspicion, and with authorities asking questions, the director weighs what place might be best for him.
Mulling the perils of observation and the unforeseen consequences of making art, “No Bears” is a richly layered metafiction, typically self-reflexive and inseparable from its context. Circumstances have transformed Panahi’s filmmaking into an act of dissent. This may be his best and most defiant work from this period. It’s also the most poignant. Panahi was arrested and imprisoned in July to serve a previously unenforced six-year sentence for “propaganda against the system,” per Reuters.
At the Venice Film Festival in September, where the movie won a Special Jury Prize, an empty seat was reserved for the director after its premiere. “Our fear empowers others,” a character tells the director in “No Bears.” Panahi has demonstrated his bravery once again.
“No Bears” has its US premiere at the New York Film Festival in October.