Designed as something akin to a Greek tragedy for the present time, Venice Film Festival Competition title athena it is a torrent, a flood, a cascade of rage, fury and frustration at the realities of life for a particular group of French families. Such conditions exist in most societies, some more dire than others, but here the wages of pent-up anger come with a determined intensity and prolonged duration that would be hard to beat.
Following in the powerful wake of the 2019 Oscar-nominated sensation The Miserableswhich was also set in a bustling eastern suburb of Paris rarely seen by outsiders, director Romain Gavras and his co-writers Elias Belkeddar and The Miserables Director Ladj Ly uses raw adrenaline and immersive camerawork to immerse you in the midst of a classic drama for modern times. The Netflix-backed movie grabs you by the throat and barely allows you a moment to breathe.
If exposed to a few random minutes of this film, most citizens of the world would never imagine they were getting a glimpse of Paris, based on the predominantly dark-skinned faces, the blandly impersonal apartment towers, the unfamiliar vocabulary, the pronounced poverty and the feeling of persistent threat. . In fact, the area is currently undergoing new transportation improvements, but the filmmakers’ interest lies strictly in the suffocating oppression, marginalization, lack of opportunity, and explosive potential that, at least as portrayed in the film, remain dire.
Athena, let’s not forget, was the Greek deity of wisdom and war. For the moment, in any case, the wisdom part of the equation has been left out by the fomenter of conflict. As shown here, the people of the titular community are essentially hopeless, their lives lived in veritable cages, cramped apartments in modern, soulless housing projects. Only 10 miles from the center of Paris, they are trapped, the young people furious, without hope.
All of this is taken for granted by the filmmakers, who feel the need to explain nothing; anger and frustration are the only things that matter to those on the edge. Gavras, the son of the famous Z Director Costa Gavras and creator of many music videos, shorts, and commercials, as well as two previous feature films, grabs the Ladj Ly ball and immediately turns the tension up tenfold. A long, flowing opening shot sweeps from a single building to the entire neighborhood in a stunning visual statement of “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” by Spielberg West Side Story looks like child’s play compared to how this was filmed on the streets.
The power and inclusion of this sequence are extraordinary; A bit of a gimmick, perhaps, but certainly impressive, a cinematic tightrope act made possible by a great imagination, stopwatch, and recently perfected technical resources. It’s so powerful and extreme that you wonder where it can go from here.
With this technology at hand, the answer is: everywhere and nowhere. Seemingly unrestrained, Gavras and his cinematographer Matias Boucard create a constant stream of urban rapids that constantly propel the viewer and the film to various interior and exterior locations in what appears to be, but is not always, real time. The action takes place on the brink of oblivion, and yet it has clearly been choreographed (and perhaps visually digitally enhanced) to ensure the action flows with a fluid sense of purpose.
The tragedy is triggered by the death of the youngest of four brothers in an apparent police incident. Middle brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a soldier in the French army, returns home from the front lines and wants to keep his cool and let justice take its course. His older brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), is a self-absorbed merchant focused on his own shady dealings.
But then there’s the brash young Karim (Sami Slimane), whose immediate instinct is to riot in the streets and burn everything down; He wants revenge and he wants it now. Arguments, feelings of anguish, and violent impulses ensue, and the film that emerges is all movement and chaos, screaming and yelling and churning for lack of a more concrete or useful way of dealing with the tragedy. Anger and despair burn every scene in the film.
Dramatically, athena it proceeds as a series of tense and terrifying situations much more than as a story. The most important thing for filmmakers is the feeling of immersion. Take after take goes on for minutes, greatly intensifying the feeling of claustrophobia and being stuck in a dead end. Restlessly and relentlessly, the camera pans up and down, in and out, right in front of the faces; the style decisively achieves its goal of making the surroundings feel inescapable.
But it also has a pronounced elegance; this is not the rough-and-ready style of French New Wave directors or the manual labor of Cassavetes and the New York street documentarists of half a century ago. On the contrary, there is a real majesty here and the long shots are very carefully planned and full of surprises; the inspired extended sequences of Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 landmark I am Cubashot in Havana, come immediately to mind.
Clearly, a great deal of technical wizardry was involved to achieve the seamless flow of images that surges through the film; devotees of ambitious staging and adventurous one-shot cinema will be amazed and impressed by what Gavras and Boucard have accomplished here.
It would be foolish to deny that sometimes the style doesn’t overwhelm and in fact obscures the admittedly poor story, or that the dramatic pitch is too high to sustain for a running time. The film is dominated by screaming and screaming. But the 97 minutes go by like lightning and there are plenty of amazing moments where you wonder how the filmmakers managed to get such intense and prolonged shots, all in order to increase the tension and fury of everything. It’s not an appropriate style for most movies, but it keeps you mesmerized every moment of this one.