‘Athena’ evaluate: The fiery French drama largely blows smoke

Romain Gavras’ “Athena” opens with a single-take sequence so intricately choreographed, and so breathtaking in its visible sweep and emotional power, it’s virtually a disgrace that there’s one other 90 minutes or so of film to associate with it. It begins at a information convention the place a French soldier, Abdel (Dali Benssalah), gravely acknowledges the latest killing of his 13-year-old brother, Idir, throughout an obvious altercation with police. The tragic incident — the third occasion of police brutality in two months, blares a information report — was captured in a video that’s since gone viral; with the group in an uproar, Abdel has been known as upon, at nice private value, to assist management the injury. However that goal is clearly futile as soon as one other man, Karim (Sami Slimane), hurls a Molotov cocktail, igniting this tinderbox of a film and turning these already tense environs right into a full-blown battle zone.

Gavras’ choice to movie all this mayhem in a single shot — or one thing that appears an terrible lot like one shot — forges a visible hyperlink between Abdel and Karim, which is hardly an accident. It’s quickly revealed that the 2 males are brothers, although their shared grief at Idir’s demise has pulled them in radically totally different instructions. The shot retains unspooling, by no means blinking: With pulse-pounding virtuosity (the cinematography is by Matias Boucard), the digicam plunges after Karim and different offended younger males as they ransack the police station, steal a cache of weapons after which joyride their approach again to the Athena housing property they name dwelling. And this place is their dwelling, a sentiment they underscore by unfurling a French tricolor alongside the way in which: It’s a defiant declaration of belonging in a rustic that hasn’t all the time claimed them in return.

Earlier than lengthy, one other flag — an Algerian flag — will burst into the body, an emblem of those younger males’s North African lineage that subtly ties “Athena” to any variety of political thrillers about French colonialism and Algerian resistance. On the identical time, the emphasis on police brutality carries a topical edge that transcends strict cultural and geographical borders; you is likely to be reminded of American headlines each latest and distant. You may additionally be reminded of 2019’s Oscar-nominated “Les Misérables,” a blistering banlieue drama written and directed by Ladj Ly. If “Athena” doesn’t obtain the identical energy (even with Ly credited as a co-writer with Gavras and Elias Belkeddar), it’s partly as a result of its politics finally really feel like a feint — a prop in a narrative that cares much less about its characters, and the huge array of human experiences they symbolize, than about its personal formal virtuosity.

Nonetheless, let’s give that virtuosity its due. Gavras’ work right here might court docket comparisons with the tense political thrillers made by his father, Costa-Gavras (“Z,” “Missing”), however his ability with the digicam has lengthy been in proof. (Earlier than his earlier options, “Our Day Will Come” and “The World Is Yours,” he directed music movies for artists together with M.I.A., Jay-Z and Kanye West.) Because of the magic of digital modifying, the frilly long-take sequences of the type he makes an attempt right here could also be simpler to drag off than they have been when, say, Orson Welles was capturing “Touch of Evil.” Nonetheless, Gavras exhibits spectacular dedication to the approach as he plunges Athena (or “Athena!” to guage by the rallying cries of the gang) right into a state of siege. The digicam retains transferring and transferring as chaos erupts, offended male our bodies jostle each other within the body, and sparks and flares mild up the night time sky, illuminating a battlefield filled with helmets and riot shields. The bodily verisimilitude is each jolting and enveloping.

As a sustained piece of motion choreography, then, “Athena” is incessantly staggering. As a drama about police violence, the woes of a long-ignored underclass and the complexities of recent French id, the film feels skinny and overdetermined. Gavras has composed the story as a sweeping symphony of civil unrest, pushed to grimly operatic heights by the depth of the performances, the wailing choral crescendos of Gener8ion’s rating and, above all, the unyielding gaze of the digicam. He lunges for each the urgency of a information headline and the fatalism of a Greek tragedy, which primarily means he proffers gritty realism with one hand and embraces bald contrivances with the opposite.

Anthony Bajon within the film “Athena.”

(Netflix)

There’s one thing a bit too dramatically expedient about the way in which “Athena” facilities its story on not two however three squabbling brothers, every representing a distinct face of immigrant rage. For some time, Abdel is the peacemaker caught within the center, decided to quell unrest and assist the residents of Athena evacuate safely. Karim, his lengthy hair marking him as this story’s romantic revolutionary, desires Idir’s killers publicly recognized and dropped at justice, and he’s keen to make a hostage of a younger cop (a sympathetic Anthony Bajon) to make sure that occurs. The eldest of the siblings is Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a drug vendor attempting to smuggle his approach out of a nightmarish state of affairs. In contrast to his brothers, he cares and stands for nothing besides his earnings.

As forcefully inhabited as these characters are — particularly by Benssalah and Slimane, who make Abdel and Karim’s concord as palpable as their fury — they not often come throughout as greater than items moved about at will in a fiery, doom-laden chess sport. Much more of a cipher is Sébastien (Alexis Manenti), a mysterious determine — however not, fortunately, one other brother — who skulks with wordless menace across the periphery of the story, then ushers it towards its grim if spectacularly photogenic finale. In these moments, “Athena” exhibits it likes to play with fireplace, although primarily due to how cool it seems to be.

‘Athena’

In French and Arabic with English subtitles

Ranking: R, for language and violence

Working time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Enjoying: Begins Sept. 23 on Netflix