ATHENA: The chaos of Garavas’ Greek tragedy

(Photos: Netflix)
Director of After Our Day Will Come and The World is Yours, Romain Gavras, has joined forces with Ladj Ly (Les Misérables) and Elias Belkeddar to create Athena, a film that follows the story of three brothers in the wake of a family tragedy.اضافة اعلان

After their younger brother is killed during a police intervention is streamed online, the lives of the brothers, played by Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, and Ouassini Embarek, are turned upside down.

Following the brothers, the film zooms out, making the city — the film’s setting — a fortified castle, a scene where collective tragedy is to come, and it has taken the world by storm.

Weaponized filmmaking for spectacular technicality

Gavras’ filmmaking skills through artistically composed frames and stylized layouts have been well established prior to Athena, but the aesthetic details take on a new dimension in the film.

Low-angle shots of buildings lend a looming quality, and extras and fireworks continuously sculpt the depth of field. Athena’s scenography and photography (by Matias Boucard) impress with their richness, precision, and magnitude. An almost mythological quality pervades these settings, kindled through the warlike grammar and operatic soundtrack.

The amplitude of the frame and sound punctuates the almost constant movement of the camera.

For over an hour and a half, there is a succession of true-false sequence shots of varying lengths giving an asphyxiating sensation of real-time, brilliantly augmented by an aggressive sound environment and a constantly agitated, chaotic visual composition.

Athena is not just an exercise in style. It is a real sensory and immersive experience that draws on other genres. This is evidenced by the confrontations verging on action, wrapped in the war-film setting and flavored with the nigh-mythological lexical field, all centered on a societal-familial drama. Gavras even plays with the codes of horror films, especially during a very tense escape sequence.

The result of this? Athena is a particularly rich and ambitious film executed with resolutely spectacular technicality.

An unhealthy coolness toward war
Even as characters teeter on the brink of implosion amid chaos, some details of life in this microcosm appear on the screen. Beyond serving as a simple demonstration of visual mastery, the sequence shots in Athena attempt to map a certain idea of the Paris suburb setting from within.
Athena is not just an exercise in style. It is a real sensory and immersive experience that draws on other genres.
The inhabitants of these enormous buildings become concrete and palpable figures, less sensitive than those of Les Miserables, of course, but painted with much more moderation than those of the recent Bac Nord (if we dare compare).

Moreover, the filmmaker ingeniously films the tension between two disconnected worlds that exist for each other only in anger within the makeshift warzone. The characters are prevented from ever truly crossing paths, except in violence. Everyone moves forward, alone, tracked by the camera of Gavras and his high-flying technical team, with affect as their only driving force.

Like Les Misérables (directed by Ly, the co-screenwriter of Athena), Athena seeks to multiply perspectives to avoid demonizing the city inhabitants’ quest for revenge while never glorifying it. However, where Les Misérables tackled a sick system that drove its citizens to violence and revolution, Athena tried hard not to offend either side — cops or suburbanites — to the point where its evocative force becomes lukewarm.

Worse, with its composed frames and aesthetic photography, Athena’s ultra-slick staging almost explores a form of beauty and unhealthy coolness towards war. By sacrificing this dimension on the subject of war, Athena sometimes inspires more embarrassment than amazement or indignation.

Brothers, but enemies
Gavras and his co-screenwriters Ly and Belkeddar have chosen to limit Athena’s plot to just a few hours, enclosing the actors in a unique space, captured almost in real-time. This choice reinforces the effectiveness of the fiction but prevents the directors from building solid characters, even through small, revealing details.

Athena’s protagonists are only summarily characterized by emotion, often anger or fear, which stifles the viewer’s emotional involvement. The drama of this family torn apart by social injustice — the true emotional heart of the film — is set aside in favor of a conflict iconized on screen. The risk of such a move is that nothing substantial exists behind the staging.

The plot of Athena, then, only stands on the confrontation between two characters. However, it is vacant across two-thirds of the film and leads to a weaker ending: a stagnant last straight shot where even the operatic staging of Gavras runs out of steam due to an overly stretched emphasis.

Athena then falls like a soufflé, leaving behind the faces of a gallery. We salute the presence of Benssalah, the darkness of Slimane, the madness of Embarek, and the distress of Anthony Bajon.

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