- Directed by Romain Gavras
- Written by Romain Gavras, Elias Belkeddar and Ladj Ly
- Starring Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane and Ouassini Embarek
- Classification R; 97 minutes
- Now streaming on Netflix
Between now and the end of the year, Netflix will release 40 or so original movies – films both developed by the streamer from the ground up, and titles that it acquired on the festival or market circuit. You will probably hear about, and maybe even watch, five of them.
Certainly, you’ll be exposed to the big, expensive prestige titles, like Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and White Noise, which Netflix hopes will turn nonsubscribers into loyal customers, or at least retain audiences who were thinking about bolting.
Which means that, unless your job is actually tracking the ins and outs of the streaming landscape, you will have never heard about the many other “Netflix Originals” that arrive on the service and then disappear into the algorithmic ether. Movies such as Athena, which happens to be one of the more thrilling, innovative and genuinely exciting films of the year.
Directed by French music-video veteran Romain Gavras (collaborator of Kanye West and M.I.A., and son of legendary political filmmaker Costa-Gavras), Athena is a Greek tragedy by way of cultural polemic, wrapped in the guise of a pulse-pounding war movie. It is at times brash and thick-headed in its characters and politics, but it is engineered with such an electric ferocity – a beautiful marriage of high-performance technical expertise and gonzo aesthetic imagination – that it cannot help but knock you out.
Opening with an unbroken 11-minute action sequence that moves from an assault on a police station to a highway chase to a full-scale riot inside the fictional French banlieue (housing project) of the title, Athena moves like a bullet, and is just as ruthless.
The story pieces itself together quickly, violently and chaotically. It starts with decorated military man Abdel (Dali Benssalah) revealing during a news conference that his 13-year-old brother Idir has been pronounced dead after a brutal encounter with police on the Athena grounds. Abdel is solemn but simmering with rage, standing next to a nameless official who demands that local officers stop closing ranks and instead reveal who the rogue cops might be, before the situation gets out of hand.
Seconds later, that situation does just that. In the crowd is Abdel’s younger brother, the furious but frighteningly calm Karim (Sami Slimane), who tosses a Molotov cocktail into the crowd, igniting a fiery standoff between Athena’s marginalized youth, the French authorities, and all manner of characters caught in-between. These include a nervous cop (Anthony Bajon) who is among hundreds of others ordered to storm the complex; a soft-spoken terrorist (Alexis Manenti) enlisted to quickly educate the housing block’s eager new insurrectionists; and Abdel and Karim’s eldest brother, the hotheaded drug dealer Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), who seems to only want to save his illicit business from an inevitable police raid.
The film’s script, co-written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar and Ladj Ly – the latter of whom tackled similar subject matter with a gentler touch in 2019′s Les Miserables – has more issues than Oedipus. The trio of writers cannot seem to transition from one scene to the next without having characters either yell at each other or employ bursts of sudden violence, or both. And the screenwriters seem equally unprepared to imagine what it must be like for anyone who is not a brooding male of brawl-ready age to live inside Athena’s walls – this is strictly a young and angry man’s world, with the four women onscreen reduced to the roles of a) weeping mother, b) abused girlfriend, c) nameless gang member, and c) angry sister/cousin/whatever.
There is also an unfortunate, embarrassing coda that reduces what was the story’s nervy, admirable accent of ambiguity regarding Idir’s death to an eye-roll of a twist. What‘s worse: The flip nearly dissolves the very real societal tensions tearing France apart, which Gavras and company weaponize as their thematic base. If Athena is a call to action, then its final moments turn a cri de cœur into a conspiracy-ridden rant.
But shoving these not-insignificant concerns aside – because, when you are watching Gavras’s film speed by, it is so very easy to turn off the “wait, what …?” part of your brain – Athena stands as a towering testament to the art of immersive, eye-rearranging cinema.
The takes are often long, uninterrupted marvels, stitched together with the kind of digital cinema trickery that can so easily be annoying, but here feels seamless, organic and purely matched with the propulsive storytelling. There is a seeming cast of thousands who are perfectly choreographed to provide maximum sensory overload in every margin of every frame. And with a pounding score by French electronic music producer Surkin – a sonic blast that answers the question of what would happen if Justice and Hans Zimmer teamed up while stuck in a studio that was on fire – the film simply never lets its energies dip for a second.
In a way, Gavras has made the perfect anti-Netflix film – giant, intimidating, requiring your rapt attention – even though he knew exactly under which depressing circumstances his work would ultimately be seen.
In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Gavras said that Athena needed to kick off with a magnificent, intricate opening sequence because “even when I watch a Netflix film, if it’s not interesting in the first five minutes, I’m going to go away.” Partly shooting with a digital IMAX camera the size of a fridge, Gavras and his dedicated team – including cinematographer Matias Boucard and editor Benjamin Weill – have created something so impressively monstrous, so larger than life, that only the biggest of big screens can possibly optimize its maximalist glory.
And the director’s reward? A single one-week theatrical run at Netflix’s Paris Theatre in New York, and almost zero promotional efforts for its streaming release.
While I had heard about Athena’s warm reception at the Venice Film Festival last month, I only found out that the film became available to stream worldwide this past week, and only thanks to a tweet from Gavras himself that happened to get RT’d into my feed. For the titles that Netflix genuinely wants to promote, I at least get a press notice with a trailer, poster, release details, etc. Here, not even a whisper of an e-mail. Curiously, the film is also nowhere to be found on my Netflix home page. Even manually searching the title, you need to type “Ath” before Athena will pop up in the first row of matching results.
I did, however, receive an e-mail from Netflix the other day informing me that new episodes of Bling Empire Season 3 were available to watch. Now that’s a tragedy of epic proportions.