‘Athena’ Review: Romain Gavras’ Tense, Incendiary Thriller Declares War on Injustice

There is no Athena housing project in Paris. That’s a name invented by “Athena” director Romain Gavras and partner in crime Ladj Ly for the banlieu apartment block that becomes a kind of makeshift fortress in an epic standoff between residents — first- and second-generation Black and Arab immigrants tired of being mistreated — and the French national police. Naming it thus lends what unfolds there a classical resonance, one that ties Gavras’ astonishing third feature to the tradition of Greek tragedy, though the situation could hardly be more timely.

“Athena” tells the story of four brothers, one murdered on camera by a group of unidentified men in police uniforms, the three others torn about what to do next. Who were these assailants, shown stomping an innocent 13-year-old to death? Why does the French police seem to be protecting the culprits? And what will it take to obtain justice?

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These questions turn the siblings against one another: The eldest, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), doesn’t seem to care, more worried about what such trouble will do for his illicit business operations. Middle brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is a decorated war hero and member of the police, trusting the system to sort itself out. And hothead Karim (Sami Slimane) is mad as hell and demands action. In the 11-minute tracking shot that opens the film (one of several virtuoso sequences), Karim tosses a Molotov cocktail into the police station, sparking pandemonium — another Greek word, this one describing the sense of chaos so masterfully orchestrated by Gavras (son of Oscar-winning “Z” director Costa-Gavras) over the next hour and a half.

“Athena” picks up where co-writer Ly’s “Les Misèrables” left off. That damning social indictment ended with the residents of Paris’ Les Bosquets projects banding together to take on the authorities who’d been harassing them for years. It made for a powerful and seemingly impossible-to-follow finale, one that conveniently cut to black just as its law-enforcement characters were about to face a reckoning. (Gavras also stopped short in his 2010 debut, “Our Day Will Come,” about a group of angry all-talk redheads who, resentful of being treated like outsiders, scheme to organize and overthrow society.)
Filming what came next would be almost too tall an order — but also not the point of those movies. They were about communities who’d had enough. In “Athena,” they snap.

The result is nothing short of an urban war movie, as charismatic characters decide to do something about the outrage people have been expressing toward law enforcement in the real world. The movie starts with a bang — an act of revenge against the police — then brings the fight home to the projects where Karim and his brothers live (it was filmed at the Parc aux lièvres in Évry-Courcouronnes, south of Paris). Looking fearless and determined, like a suburban Che Guevara, Karim stands on the ramparts as fireworks erupt all around. A scene not so different from this inspired the lyrics to America’s “Star-Spangled Banner” (here, drums beat and choirs soar on Gener8ion’s operatic soundtrack).

But “Athena” is not propaganda. Sure, it could be seen as a passionate call to action, giving audiences a taste of resistance, but the screenwriters — Gavras, Ly and Elias Belkeddar — temper that catharsis with a strong sense of caution. Is it irresponsible to show citizens fighting back like this? Could “Athena” provoke such behavior in real life? The revolutionary impulse is already there, as we saw with the demonstrations following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.

Off camera, someone steals dozens of tracksuits from a local football club — black with fluorescent orange stripes running from shoulder to shin — which become a kind of uniform for this improvised army. The cops arrive in riot gear, dressed like sci-fi stormtroopers. Though they have guns, it seems like most of these officers are barely more than kids.

“Athena” singles out one such rookie, Jérôme (Anthony Bajon), who’s clearly flustered by the situation, even before he finds himself stranded behind “enemy lines.” Karim and his brothers are the movie’s main characters, but Jérôme matters too, helping to humanize the disciplined yet fallible people trying to keep the peace. In situations like this, peace is just another word for the status quo. Progress takes pressure.

Gavras and Ly are partners in the Kourtrajmé filmmaking collective, which began as a group of like-minded directors and expanded to train and empower disenfranchised young people to become cinematic storytellers. “Athena” puts people of color front and center, taking responsibility for how they are depicted. There are casualties on both sides; a cop is taken hostage; civilians are beaten and smothered in pepper spray.

It’s a terrifying thing to witness, seizing the powder-keg tensions seen in France and around the world and not just lighting the fuse, but following the conflict to its radical conclusion: “Civil War in France?” asks a TV news headline, showing footage of similar uprisings in other cities around the country. “Why not let it burn?” Karim asks as police surround the residential towers, turning Athena into a modern-day Alamo. The answer, contained in the film’s final minutes, is both incredibly distressing and impossible to ignore. If “Remember Athena!” should ever become a war cry, it will mean something far more complex than the film suggests at the outset.

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