‘Athena’ review: Romain Gavras explores a civil war at its most brutal, despairing and devastating [A-] |Venice Review
What does it take to push a home, a city, a country into chaos? Is it an accumulation of injustice or can it just take one single, dramatic event to start that destructive spiral? How hard is it for a person to hold a family and his own identity together in the face of societal collapse? These are the questions that Romain Gavras asks himself and the public with Athena, his new film premiering at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.
Abdel is a soldier, originally from the Parisian banlieue of Athena, and he’s just lost his youngest brother Idris. It appears that three policemen, whose names have not been released to the public, have murdered him in cold blood on the streets. Abdel has been called back from the frontline to calm the increasing tension in the community that has found its leader in Karim, one of Abdel’s brothers. Karim is angry, he’s out for vengeance and justice, and he’s ready to stop at nothing to quench his thirst. Abdel also has another brother, Moktar, a figure in the local criminal world with a lot at stake. The destinies of these three brothers become irreparably entangled in the wake of the attack at a police station, an attack that provokes violent and destructive repercussions to Athena, and the rest of France, during a long, dark and fateful night.
It would be easy to see Athena as a film about police brutality. I think it would also be a mistake. Athena is a film about what pushes people to their extremes, and about the efforts one must make to keep a moral compass straight in the face of destruction. Abdel, brilliantly played by Dali Benssalah, is a man torn between the loyalty to his family and the duty to his job: Benssalah’s feverishly tormented face is the image of a man on the brink whose escape seems like a mirage. Dark forces seem to dominate and manipulate the world of Athena, whose name is far from accidental from a film like this: Gavras and his co-writer Ladj Ly designed the film as a modern Greek tragedy, respecting the unity of place and time (the film is almost entirely set in one single building and the action runs through a single day), with a chorus of players that constantly intervene in the events.
A few writing missteps (a completely unnecessary final scene, a few predictable turn of events) can’t diminish the impact of a film that is as immersive as it is obviously calculated in its execution: the film starts with an approximately ten-minutes long uninterrupted take and goes deeper and deeper into the action as the film progresses towards its devastating last act. Athena is cinematic and theatrical at once, retaining the best of both worlds, and credit must be given to director Romain Gavras for such a muscular direction whose effectiveness is not really far from classics of this genre, like John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. Athena knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be, and its powerful execution and its unflinching and brutal depiction of its civil war has left me shaken and breathless more than once.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival. The film will be released globally on Netflix September 23.