Romain Gavras wastes no time in “Athena” informing the audience of the stakes. There have been three cases of police brutality within two months in the titular majority-minority community. Tensions are already high when law enforcement addresses the controversies in the film’s opening scene – and then a coordinated group of young men from the neighborhood storm and stack the station.
Before anyone can catch their breath, Gavras is over ten minutes into “Athena” … and still has yet to have a single cut. The film is prodigious in its use of single takes to convey the immersive immediacy of characters trapped in a fight for their very lives and livelihoods. This is not just flashiness for the pure exaltation of the filmmaker, though the astonishingly acrobatic camerawork of cinematographer Matias Boucard deserves serious plaudits for its gravity-defying leaps. The oners are deeply connected to the inescapable nature of the cop-civilian conflict. How fitting in a neighborhood named for the god of such exploits.
“Athena” makes for a killer companion piece with 2019’s barn-burning “Les Misérables.” It might as well be a sequel given that the film’s writer-director Ladj Ly co-wrote the script with Gavras, his longtime partner in the French filmmaking collective Kourtrajmé. (Elias Belkeddar also receives a screenplay credit on the film.) The situation escalates significantly, as does the propulsive nature of the filmmaker to convey that heightened intensity. This is not just a skirmish. “Athena” is fully a war movie recognized by both the filmmakers and the characters.
The focus on real-time documentation, plunging the audience directly into the action, does initially prevent Gavras from the compelling character building that defines his previous films of tortured masculinity such as “Our Day Will Come” and “The World Is Yours.” He trusts the audience to pick up the differences between the three siblings who’ve lost their brother at the hands of an unidentified attacker. His death is captured on a widely circulated video, yet no one at the police department will take accountability or provide the names of those responsible.
Karim (Sami Slimane) advocates for direct, brutal attacks on the police state as the only method to end their community’s targeted abuse. Abdel (Dali Benssalah) takes a more conciliatory approach between the two parties, professing that continued attacks against the state will only worsen the crackdown. Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) cares little about tactics so long as he can get out with his money.
With time and the intensification of the battle, the merits of Gavras’ scenario-first approach emerge. He does not need to establish character as the nature of war inevitably reveals it. Each brother’s response to the dizzying pace of events unfolding proves a source of endless fascination within “Athena.” These men cannot just be easy stand-ins for ideologies. To fit in with the feel of the film, they must be flesh-and-blood people who respond unpredictably and erratically to battlefield happenings.
The fissures that emerge both between the brothers and within the community recall the frenzied drawing of battle lines of “High Noon,” albeit executed with the speed of broadband instead of a telegram. Men of only slightly more advanced years than Karim excoriate the youth’s fury as ignorant hot-headedness. What buildings and what people are worth salvaging from the collapsing Athena community make for another wedge of serious contention. Every argument comes battle-tested and free of academic or intellectual trappings, arising from the present and palpable circumstances of the given moment. No moment rings false as Gavras firmly situates viewers within the compelling continuity and context of the film.
When a cable news chyron in the closing moments of the film blares “CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE,” it does not feel hyperbolic or unmerited in the slightest. Gavras’ gripping tragedy captures contemporary urban warfare to pulse-pounding effect. Especially after the film’s stunning conclusion, “Athena” is destined to leave jaws on the floor and heart rates significantly elevated long after the credits roll. This is the painful, perilous present tense written in the flash of a smartphone camera and the blaze of a Molotov cocktail. [A-]