'Athena' Review: Parisian Neighbourhood Witnesses Urban Warfare In Romain Gavras' Furious Tragedy
Might do something rare in this intro and advise you to perhaps buy a seat belt for your chair, couch or bed, just so you're ready to go once the first frame appears on the screen. That is due to the intensity of director Romain Gavras' modern war tragedy Athena (same title in French), also co-written by him alongside Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar. That title refers to a neighbourhood in Paris where the story takes place in, following nationwide protests and urban warfare which begin after a press briefing about the killing of Idir, a local teenager, which was caught on camera, with suspects being from law enforcement. On different sides of the battles are Idir's brothers, rebel activist leader Karim (Sami Slimane) and drug dealing Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) fighting as part of the civilians, while Abdel (Dali Benssalah) tries to negotiate with Karim as he's a member of the military.
It should be pretty safe to say that it's not a surprise that Athena is supposed to invoke a very specific expectation going in, instantly reminding you of a Greek tragedy, and the film certainly delivers on that front. There's a lot to say about its filmmaking merits but at its core, the war is about accountability and justice, how brushing things aside just leads to another tragedy and how temporary chaos sometimes feels like the only way to bring back some sense to a difficult situation. This is purposefully a very angry film, not vengeful but still ambitious, which Gavras manages to illustrate so effectively in multiple areas that it gets under your skin.
Cinematographer Matias Boucard's work is noticeable because nearly every shot is a long take, but there's intention in those frames. Gavras makes sure that the illusion never breaks as there's always ''uncontrollable'' things going on in middle ground and background, while Boucard really focuses on the brothers, often by having them extremely close. That's a heavy burden on the actors but it is what makes Athena so gripping, especially when capturing Benssalah's performance which is remarkable, showing the conflict inside Abdel through anger and mourning, particularly during the last 30 minutes.
While you definitely feel the intensity in the moment, Gavras and his co-writers' slight oversight may appear afterwards as it's sometimes hard to calculate what the last point is that they're trying to make. Athena's ending very much reflects that since the last scene breaks much of the immersion and truth-seeking aspects of the script. Many viewers may find that aggravating but many will just as likely be focusing more on the terrific filmmaking—like Gener8ion's score with doomsday choirs and low piano notes or year's best special effects (don't even ask about the pyrotechnics and flares budget)—which creates the immersion.
Smileys: Directing, Dali Benssalah, SFX, score
Frowneys: Some issues with ending
Drink fruit juice to participate in a battle, Pepsi to end one.