"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Athena

ATHENA is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. I have no idea how they did it. I have one (1) huge issue with it, which prevents it from being one of my top movies of last year, but it’s a big ass spoiler that I will deal with separately at the end of this review. And you may disagree with me, so don’t worry about that for now. What’s important is that this is a thrilling cinematic experience and about as epic as a movie could feel while clocking in at less than 100 minutes. And it’s on Netflix – it’s one of the ones that actually wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t funded it – so it’s a very accessible way to get knocked flat on your ass by a concussion grenade of impeccable spectacle.

For those who haven’t heard of it, ATHENA is an intense French action-thriller about a battle between riot cops and the predominantly French-Algerian residents of a housing project (in a Parisian banlieue, you know, like the parkour movie) after the death of a 13 year old kid named Idir. Idir’s oldest brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah, NO TIME TO DIE) is a straight-laced soldier who exits police headquarters and announces to the press that they’ve promised to investigate which officers were responsible for his brother’s death. He asks that the people of the Athena project please stay calm and peaceful.

But Idir’s other brother Karim (Sami Slimane) isn’t buying that shit, so he tosses a molotov cocktail, and an army of other fed up young radicals storm the building. Filmatistically ATHENA is a cousin to CHILDREN OF MEN, THE REVENANT and 1917 – it’s a series of hypnotic long take sequences that seem impossible to orchestrate without mass injury. If there are any normal length shots they blended in enough that I didn’t notice. So we glide into the mayhem as the invaders fill the air with roman candle sparks and smoke, find the armory, steal helmets and vests and a safe, load them into a stolen police van, drive it all the way home (more of a celebratory parade than a car chase, since it takes the cops a minute to regroup), and get in place for the inevitable onslaught.

Slimane, who has no other credits, has an absolutely arresting screen presence as the camera follows him through all this. Everyone rallies behind Karim because they’ve seen the video of his brother’s death, but he’s clearly an experienced leader of some kind – he’s constantly directing people (call so-and-so and tell them we’re coming, go to this place and do this) and they do what he says without question or hesitation. The sequence is so full of interesting details and turns – people on the roofs assuming the police van is being driven by police and throwing things at them, a guy proudly telling Karim about the 30 track suits he stole for them to wear like uniforms, people taking selfies while hanging off the side of the van – but for me the most exhilarating part is the guys on motorcycles doing wheelies next to the van as they hit the road with the stolen loot. It makes me think of the training montage that gives me goosebumps every time I watch CREED, and also the fact that these filmmakers are pretty much doing wheelies with their cameras. Most of all it’s a moment when we can naively share their premature swagger and feeling of triumph. Take that, motherfuckers!

My second favorite part is the guy who runs up along the van on the street asking for a smoke, is told “not now,” but much later when Karim passes him inside the walls he hands him one. And the same guy randomly shows up on a horse later. Where the fuck did a get a horse, and why? Man, this is a movie.

Many/most reviews say it’s not as good after the opening, and/or there’s not enough story here, neither of which were my experience at all. Within the confines of this standoff/siege/riot situation there’s all kinds of shit going on. The older residents meet and try to figure out how to evacuate. Abdel promises them he’ll talk Karim down, and is also directed to hide Sebastien (Alexis Manenti), who we’ve heard on the news is on a terrorist watch list. They find him gardening with headphones on, apparently oblivious to the chaos around him, but his eyes get big and he smiles as they drag him to safety and he sees what’s going on. (Admittedly I like this part of the story more when it remains ambiguous what we should think about him.)

There’s another thread about another family member, half brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek, BAISE-MOI, CASH TRUCK), a coke dealer trying to bury his product outside of the walls before the feds get there. The others see him and his henchmen carrying bags and refuse to let them leave, thinking they’re loaded with guns they can use. So they have to find a different hiding place.

Karim’s plan is to abduct “a fed” and hold him until they release the names of the officers in the video. The unlucky hostage is Jerome (Anthony Bajon), a babyfaced officer who we’ve watched nervously entering the fray before getting dragged away from his squad. Without words the movie communicates that he’s just a guy doing his job getting in over his head, probly not understanding or necessarily believing any of it. But damned if he doesn’t get into hitting random poor people with a nightstick.

Of course there’s no clear right side in this conflict. I question anyone who doesn’t sympathize most with Karim, but this whole plan is obviously immoral and proves not to be productive. Still, you understand him and the urge to fight. For Americans the riot imagery can’t help but evoke January 6th (or for Brazilians, January 8th), so it forced me to wonder how I’d feel if something like that was done on behalf of a cause I agreed with instead of a sleazy delusional conman flattering people’s bigotry and filling their heads with ridiculous horse shit. If instead of neo-nazis and Fox News suckers it was the good guys doing the wrong thing, how would I feel about it then? I don’t know.

Abdel is an interesting character because wanting to make peace is the right thing, but you see him with his beret saying to trust the police to investigate themselves and you’re like alright dork, shut up and get out of the way, nobody wants to hear this shit. Even when the old people are meeting and ranting about the young “savages” doing this, one of them calls Abdel “the oppressor.” And when, in a tearful argument, Karim says that Abdel should’ve died instead of Idir, Abdel takes a long breath and then agrees.

So I admit I did not find myself enthusiastically rooting for the right side when Abdel gets to Jerome, unties him, and makes a truce with Moktar to get him outside. They’re so close to saving him but Karim is standing outside a metal grate threatening to toss in a firebomb. Very tense.

The tone of this doesn’t remind me of THE WARRIORS or ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 at all, and yet it’s a similar idea – it’s intentionally designed to be like a Greek myth, not a documentary. But for me this scene is when it definitively crosses over from quasi-realism to a more poetic approach. (MAJOR SPOILER coming up.) Abdel and Karim are very set in their ways and represent opposing viewpoints. But when Abdel sees Karim shot by police – though he certainly understands why they did it – it almost instantly radicalizes him. Here’s a long-take sequence that’s as powerful as any of the massive set pieces, but much simpler and more intimate: In an act of absolute brutality, Abdel unleashes all of his rage on an unsuspecting Moktar, screaming and pounding his face into the floor. We see his fists, we don’t see them connect, it’s completely off screen, and I don’t think we even see any blood. But we get the idea that Moktar has to have been turned into mush. (Wikipedia says Benssalah is a former Muay Thai champion.) Once he’s done, the camera stays close on Abdel as he pants for a long time. He calmly states that anyone who wants out should put their weapons down and leave. Some of them do. Then he stands up and starts directing the troops. Karim is gone, and Abdel takes his place.

If the system keeps shitting on people, they’ll turn against it eventually. Even its biggest fans.

That’s all very interesting, and by the way most of it happens during scenes that had me constantly wondering “How the fuck did they even do this?” I didn’t notice any digital effects, and the director claims there are none, but most of the movie involves cameras moving through locations with crowds of extras, fireworks, smoke bombs, flames, characters and vehicles moving in different directions and hitting marks at just the right time for the camera to reach them. There are stunts that seem impossible to set up and time exactly as needed, but also there are just big melees going on between crowds of locals and cops wailing on each other, stuff that couldn’t exactly be choreographed. Reportedly they rehearsed the whole film with a small camera for almost two months to get the rhythm down. The cinematographer is Matias Boucard (a producer of PIXELS!? [because he shot the short it was based on]) and stunt coordinator is Jerome Gaspard (CLIMAX, TITANE).

For that alone I highly recommend checking out ATHENA. But as I said in the opening paragraph, I have one not insignificant complaint, which I will yell and punch the movie’s face in about in the spoiler section below. Before that, I will say that this is incredible craftsmanship from Romain Gavras, a director of music videos and ads plus two previous narrative features (OUR DAY WILL COME and THE WORLD IS YOURS). I will definitely keep an eye out for him now.


SPOILER DISCUSSION OF THE VERY END OF THE MOVIE. DO NOT READ. EVER.

If my power had gone out a minute before the end credits, ATHENA would’ve been in my top five of the year. I was ready to certify it a GFM (Great Fuckin Movie) and 4 or 5 star banger from the opening frame until the final reveal happened. The last scene is such whiplash from greatness to are-you-fuckin-kidding-me!? that it reminds me of that plot twist that went over so poorly in HIGH TENSION. But it’s much crueler because it’s not just adding a dumb layer to a good slasher movie, it’s transforming a cathartic of-the-moment (but also timeless) movie into some dumb bullshit, shifting its allegiance from The People to The Man at the very last second. Such a betrayal. I was so mad.

Here’s what happens. It has been mentioned a few times throughout the movie (on a news report, by a “good cop” trying to work with Abdel, and a random person talking about what he’s seen on social media) that it might not really be cops who killed Idir, it might’ve been right wing extremists pretending to be cops. It works because in the real world “police and their backers” (as Curtis sang in “[Don’t Worry] If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”) do love to make up bullshit theories to explain away every monstrous thing cops ever do.

But this last scene shows the death of Idir and we find out that it’s not a bullshit theory – cops didn’t kill him. They were framed! Thankfully we don’t have to see the poor kid beaten to death, but we see his body, and then the “police” who killed him leave and get in a van and then they take off their uniforms and burn them, and one of them has an iron cross tattoo on the back of his head to imply they’re skinheads or whatever. So it turns out pre-radicalization-Abdel was right: Karim and friends should’ve calmly waited for the police to investigate, and then should’ve believed the very convenient conclusion they would’ve come to that they were innocent. And everyone could’ve hugged and believed in the system now that they know it wasn’t the system that did this it was some bad apples and not even officially sanctioned bad apples.

I’m sure the filmatists didn’t think of this scene as exonerating police of brutality. I’m sure they were thinking “See, both sides are playing into the hands of bad people when we fight each other.” But it’s such a ludicrous notion. I can’t claim to understand France, but I doubt their cops are so different from ours that they don’t do the same shit that the first 90+ minutes of this movie are such a primal scream against. They are the ones who shoot at the cop they’re trying to rescue when he has a chance to escape. And who fuck up so bad that they cause their greatest advocate on the inside to do a complete 180 against them. Who push the poor and non-white until they finally push back and then delight in the opportunity to go to war with them. You know this is the world we live in but now you’re asking us to believe that police killings of innocent minorities are so rare, and so hard for the authorities to sweep under the rug, that this right wing militia knows that one would cause a civil war, but that they would have to do it themselves!?

It’s so laughable and insulting. Most disappointing cop-related cop out since STRANGE DAYS’ “Give the video to the deputy police commissioner, he can be trusted, the end.”

Generally I’m in favor of right wing extremists being used as movie bad guys, since various stripes of them are terrorizing us all around the world. But you gotta understand, ATHENA – we can’t make peace with the cops and the system to unite against the right wing extremists, because they are not entirely separate entities. Many cops and politicians are right wing extremists, or agree with them, and if not are often following policies that come from their ideology. Some law enforcement departments even have literal gangs, wear Punisher symbols, get kill count tattoos, and their unions are openly fascist thugs and propagandists who even in liberal cities like mine get virtually no push back when they bully governments into nixing accountability and giving them preposterously inflated budgets that are counterproductive to community safety. So we can’t just shake hands with the nice ones and fight a shared enemy. It’s not that fuckin simple, ATHENA. You seemed to get that until just now. What happened to you, ATHENA? You could’ve been beautiful, man.

P.S. Here’s how Gavras describes the movie in an interview with CNN:

“We wanted to bring a Greek tragedy aspect into it; almost like a myth of the near future. It is set in France now, but it could have been set in the Trojan War, medieval wars, maybe a war in the future with Elon Musk on the moon. Because the situation is an archetype of how a war – a civil war, more specifically – can be ignited in real time. “

Yep, that sounds like THE WARRIORS all right. It’s so close to a masterpiece.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 10th, 2023 at 7:10 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Athena”

  1. Turns out Romain Gavras is the son of Costa-Gavras, the great French-Greek director of political thrillers like Z and MISSING with Jack Lemon (good luck finding that one anywhere). The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

  2. This is such a great movie, and everyone should see it, but you’re right that the ending is so dumb. I think Gavras’s Greek tragedy description is spot on, since you can see nearly everyone’s side and empathize with most of the main characters at certain parts of the film. You even have a cop character who we follow for a time and hope he gets out alive. It’s not like the film is necessarily pro-revolt. But with that ending, it feels like Gavras is afraid people will too closely sympathize and identify with Karim, so he has to clearly undercut his actions with one last scene.

  3. Agree with all of this. By the way Netflix also has a short behind the scenes documentary that gives an idea of how they did some of the crazy long takes.

  4. @Rbatty, Gavras is definitely not pro-revolt, he’s a privileged white guy who’s fetishized and exploited the idea of a “disenfranchised banlieue youth vs cops” civil war since he co-created Kourtrajmé 20 years ago, but never took an actual stance on it because it could hurt his career. He’s Luc Besson with surface level gritty realism and a last name that gives him the benefit of the doubt as an auteur. He can’t simply be a doofus who likes tough guys with guns like Besson, he’s the son of a respected director!

    Not saying he doesn’t have talent as a filmmaker, I just don’t think he has much more to say than “wow you guys, things could get pretty scary if those North African and Black kids in our suburbs got any angrier than they already are, what a sick sad world, #NotAllCops though don’t get me wrong.”

    Anyway it’s a good looking movie with good actors, but it’s also really dumb, shallow, and full of cliches. I mostly hated it but then again movies about the French banlieue tend to rub me the wrong way.

  5. Yeah, this was some rough shit

    [i]Romain Gavras, a director of music videos and ads[/i]

    Wait, you’re saying this cat really [i]doesn’t[/i] want an uprising??? You’re kidding…

  6. and once again

    vern’s site uses regular-ass html

    say it 100 times…

  7. Never heard of this until today. Watching tonight and then coming back to read.

  8. Just oner after oner. I really like this. I don’k know, I initially had your reaction Vern. I had a mixed reaction to the ending, and I may just be pushing my own agenda on the end of the film. Could the the skinheads just actually BE the cops?

  9. And burning the evidence?

  10. You are sure free to interpret it that way. Do you think there’s anything to indicate that could be the intent?

  11. Burning those uniforms only makes sense if they’re not real cops and need to hide evidence of having used fake cop uniforms.
    Having a cop uniform if you’re a real cop is not incriminating, they wouldn’t need to burn them. The scene also shows that they’re filming it themselves, which only makes sense if they’re not cops.

  12. I know it’s a stretch. Wishful thinking because I loved the movie up until that point, as you wrote Vern.

  13. “For Americans the riot imagery can’t help but evoke January 6th (or for Brazilians, January 8th), so it forced me to wonder how I’d feel if something like that was done on behalf of a cause I agreed with instead of a sleazy delusional conman flattering people’s bigotry and filling their heads with ridiculous horse shit. If instead of neo-nazis and Fox News suckers it was the good guys doing the wrong thing, how would I feel about it then? I don’t know.”

    Or, you know, the Rodney King riots? Why are you treating “black people rioting in response to perceived police brutality” as some crazy hypothetical scenario like bringing dinosaurs back to life for a theme park?

  14. Can’t speak for Vern but the Rodney King riots happened three decades ago. The Capitol Riot was only two years ago, and the Brazilian counterpart was earlier this week. It doesn’t seem strange at all to draw a comparison to something still in recent memory.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but from the vehemence of your comment I’m assuming it’s really the politics expressed in Vern’s characterization of 1/6 that bother you. But that can’t be news to you.

  15. Funny thing to me is Kaplan reached all the way back to Rodney King when he could have just gone to the more recent BLM rioting, which happened for the same reasons.

  16. Boy, did I hate this movie. I was already not enjoying it from the beginning, as I found the super long show-off oners to be incredibly distracting and ineffective. But my god, I may have only been mildly disappointed but that godawful, idiotic wonder makes this a train wreck for sure.

  17. Great review, almost missed out on this one.

    I had the same initial reaction to the ending, but have since started wondering if it’s just poorly thought out or if it’s a historic reference that I didn’t pick up on.

    I know that during the Algerian War of Independence, France had serious issues with domestic terrorism and false flag operations executed by members of the police. Right-wing extremists, frequently literal nazis, would form terror groups that targeted Algerians living in France and anyone not in favor of escalating an already brutal war of oppression to keep the colonies in line. But these weren’t ordinary racists: they were cops and millitary, forming their own shadow militias, often with the blessing and support of their superiors. See also the Paris Massacre of 1961, where the head of the Parisian police planted provocateurs amongst the crowds of protesting Algerians. Their job was to provide the police with an excuse to violently intervene with what was until then a peaceful demonstration. Officially, 40 people died. Unofficially, the numbers are more likely to be between the 300 and 400 protestors that died for no good reason. This head of police dodged any responsibility for his actions because of a general pardon, but was later nailed because he also turned out to be responsible for the mass-arrests and deportation of Jews during the German occupation.

    I am now starting to read the ending not as nazis framing the police, but as these policemen unveiling themselves as literal nazis who have just successfully created a scenario in which they get to go and beat up brown people with the full blessing of the system.

    But, again: not French, so I could be completely wrong about this.

  18. Autocorrect mishap — ending, not wonder.

  19. That first 10 or so minute oner is the best movie I’ve seen in years. Incredible. For me, the rest of the movie couldn’t live up to that. Great filmmaking, but I think the story started losing me before the ending everyone hated. And maybe I was struggling to keep up with the subtitles and all the chaos erupting onscreen.

  20. This movie has really incredible bravura filmmaking, I enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes featurette on Netflix right after, the way they pulled off some of those long-take action sequences and camera moves and real-life pyrotechnics was incredible… but it also has a shitty bootlicking story that regardless of its politics runs out of steam with like 30 minutes to go. Like Vern writes, it’s quite the moment when Abdel breaks down then switches sides and starts giving directions to the rioters… but then nothing really happens after that. There’s half an hour left in the movie but there’s no juice left.

    And the fact that this is a civil unrest movie where the cops do nothing wrong, where they deserve no share of the blame for what goes wrong, and where they act appropriately at all times makes it irredeemable. It can’t even bring itself to have the generic morally ambiguous POV where there are good and bad actors on both sides. To me, that makes it impossible to recommend. Watch the opening oner on youtube, skip the movie, is what I would advise anyone curious about it. For a much better movie about civil unrest in France, check out LES MISERABLES (the 2019 movie, not the musical).

  21. @SlightlyChaotic, no the “they’re neonazi cops” explanation does not make any sense.

    If the guys at the end were really cops, they wouldn’t need to burn those uniforms, because it’s ok for a cop to own a cop uniform, it doesn’t constitute incriminating evidence.

    If they’re neonazi cops pretending to be neonazi non-cops so that they can claim that innocent cops were framed by neonazis, they wouldn’t burn the uniforms, they’d keep them so that they could conveniently find them later and say “we found evidence that someone was trying to frame the cops”*

    Also if they were cops trying to start a civil war on purpose, they wouldn’t kill a 13 year old kid, they’d drag an suspected drug dealer or suspected terrorist out of custody and kill him in similar fashion, because that would still enrage the Athéna kids but at least the cops could use the “well sure we crossed the line but still the guy was no angel, he was a criminal resisting arrest” to keep some of the public opinion on their side.

    Sorry, that ending 100% means “it wasn’t the cops after all, it was a neonazi group pretending to be cops”. That’s why they burn their fake or stolen uniforms. Any other interpretation would mean that rather than being disappointing, wrongheaded and cowardly, that twist were convoluted and poorly staged, and I think we can agree that whether we love or hate the movie it’s neither convoluted or poorly staged.

    It’s ok to admit that the movie has stunning visuals and thrilling action scenes and great performances AND really fucking shitty politics. I mean I fucking love Conan the Barbarian, I’m still not going to try to convince myself that John Milius is not a right wing nut.

    There’s plenty of evidence that Gavras is carefully avoiding pointing fingers and taking sides. So, yeah, the riot cops are obviously happy to have an excuse to hit kids BUT the kids were wrong, the real bad guys were not cops, because he doesn’t want to seem anti-cop. But the kids have plenty of moments of triumph, because he doesn’t want to seem anti-youth. There’s a terrorist, assumably muslim but I think it’s never actually said so he could plausibly deny that the character is a muslim terrorist and he doesn’t seem like he’s anti-muslim, and the character is named “Sébastien” so he’s like the only white guy in the entire Athéna complex because Gavras doesn’t want to be accused of being racist. There’s never a single politician on screen, the most we get is a voice coming out of a TV or a radio spouting typical right wing propaganda bullshit but it’s unrecognizable and we don’t know if it’s a politician or just some pundit, and I’m sure Gavras would claim that it’s a way to make it a timeless tragedy, but it’s also a way not to alienate anyone. The guy doesn’t want to make enemies because he wants to keep getting funding from the CNC to make movies and that’s a government agency (whose boss is friends with president Macron) so you don’t want to get on the bad side of the government by making a movie that shows their guard dogs as bloodthirsty killers. So the real bad guys are faceless neonazis, and Gavras won’t even go as far as to dare showing an actual nazi tattoo, just a celtic cross, which granted is used by neonazis but is not intrinsically a nazi emblem.

    *That actually reminds me of something that really happened a few years ago, where cops beat a guy within an inch of his life, and pens with the logo of a right wing police union were found on the scene, and if memory serves the cops had left the pens there on purpose so that they could claim later that somebody was trying to frame them by planting obvious evidence.

  22. Even putting aside the galling ending, what’s unremarked upon is that Idir’s murder wasn’t an isolated one-off incident, which would still be unforgivable and enough of a cause for the powder keg to blow, but that it’s the 3rd killing of an Athena resident in the past 2-months.
    Which begs the question; were all of them by far-right extremists, or just Idir’s?

  23. If the cops took off their masks at the end and one of them was the “innocent” hostage cop guy….. Would have been one of the greatest gut punches in cinema history and a certified classic. Instead, blah.

  24. To be clear, I also loved the rest of this movie other than the final scene. No scene at all would have been better. Let it be ambiguous….

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