Review by Thomas Page, CNN
French writer-director Romain Gavras wants your attention, and like Karim, the fiery youth at the heart of his third feature ‘Athena’, he’s willing to do anything to get it.
In the first ten minutes of “Athena,” we witness a tense press conference that escalates into violence, a raid on a police station by angry youths, and a heart-pounding race towards their urban fortress with possessions. looted. It’s only after a breathless barrage of action and jaw-dropping camera work, as they mount the barricades in victory, that the director decides to call the cut.
Gavras and his cinematographer Matias Boucard have concocted an absolute tracking shot to launch this new Netflix thriller, tailor-made to grab audiences by the throat. It’s the kind of long shot that makes the opening of “Touch of Evil” look like it could have rolled up its socks; which makes the raid in “True Detective” look like a walk in the park. It is a rush of adrenaline to the heart and imposes an impossible rhythm to maintain. But through 97 relentless and exhilarating minutes, this film will try.
Karim (played by newcomer Sami Slimane) mourns the loss of his younger brother, beaten to death by uniformed police – the third case of police brutality in two months in 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 advocating for peace, while older brother Koktar (Ouassini Embarek) is a drug trafficker who fears a riot could hurt business. Karim, meanwhile, has become a figurehead ready to lead a generation into battle.
Shortly after the raid, the police descend on Athena to confront the youths. Caught between their parents and extended family. The film questions their passivity while soliciting sympathy for them, as well as for Jérôme (Anthony Bajon), a frightened officer sent into the fray. But above all, we channel the righteous anger of Karim, unconvinced by the interventions of his brothers.
Gavras and co-writers Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar tell the story of the siege that follows almost entirely within the concrete maze of Athena, built around a series of long takes emphasizing the chaos of skirmishes. ongoing and Karim’s makeshift plans. Filmed with IMAX cameras, Molotov cocktails and Roman candles launch into the night; masses of bodies fill the corridors, run on the roofs and collide to the sound of a baroque score.
What if the Trojan War took place in a Parisian housing estate? It could look like this. With her clashing brothers, mythologized men and epic sense of scale, “Athena” is reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedies. Yet his pains are rooted in the present – and they are deeply felt. It’s a cinematic piece of bravery by a general behind the camera; one that inevitably draws attention to the art of war that is cinema itself. The logistics of it all make your head spin.
“Athena” is in select theaters now and is available on Netflix September 23.
The interview: Romain Gavras, screenwriter-director
Gavras, a veteran 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 on 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 movie, we’re doing everything for real,” Gavras says. “The planning, oddly, was almost military and very precise in creating chaos on camera.”
For more on the writer-director, read our full interview.
One to broadcast now: “Saloum”
Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot delivers an animated midnight film about three fugitive mercenaries in a remote corner of Senegal. Yann Gael, Roger Sallah and Mentor Ba entertain each other like badass, but their arrogant attitude is tested when a paranormal enemy threatens them and their gold stash. Herbulot’s meandering neo-Western (a “south”, he calls it) packs plenty of themes and the undead history of West Africa into its tight execution. The specter of colonialism and the exploitation of people and places hovers, providing a dark note. Nonetheless, it’s good pulpy fun with fierce imagination and eye-catching visual flair.
“Saloum” is available on quiver in the USA.
One to save for later: “No Bears”
Each new Jafar Panahi film feels like a small miracle. The Iranian director was banned from leaving the country and making films for over a decade, but he kept finding a way. In “No Bears,” Panahi plays a version of himself who traveled to a border village to remotely make a film in neighboring Turkey. He finds himself trapped in a local dispute, accused of having photographed the illicit meeting of a couple, the woman being promised to another. Meanwhile, the real-life couple in her film plot an exodus. Borders of all kinds figure prominently. Harassed by villagers who treat him and his camera with suspicion, and with authorities asking questions, the director weighs up which location might be best for him.
Evoking the perils of observation and the unintended consequences of artistic creation, “No Bears” is a richly layered metafiction, typically self-reflective and inseparable from its context. Circumstances turned Panahi’s cinema into an act of dissent. It is perhaps his best and most provocative work of this period. It is also the most poignant. Panahi was arrested and jailed in July to serve a previously unenforced six-year sentence for “propaganda against the system”, according to Reuters.
At the Venice Film Festival in September, where the film 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 once again demonstrated his bravery.
“No Bears” has its US premiere at New York Film Festival in October.
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