Athena (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Three brothers in the middle of an intense urban conflict

French film “Athena”, which was released on Netflix in last week, is quite gritty and intense in the presentation of one increasingly chaotic conflict in a slum neighborhood. While it takes some time for you to grasp what is exactly going on around its several main characters, the movie steadily and tightly holds your attention in its grip to the end, and its impressive overall technical achievement is more than enough to compensate for its rather weak storytelling.

During the striking opening sequence which plainly begins at a local police station and then electrifies us with considerable technical prowess, the movie quickly establishes the ongoing situation surrounding Abdel (Dali Benssalah) and his two brothers Karim (Sami Slimane) and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek). A few days ago, their youngest brother was brutally murdered, and it seemed that he was killed by several unidentified local police officers. Not so surprisingly, many people in their neighborhood including Karim became quite angry about this ghastly injustice, and that eventually led to the ongoing clash between the local police and a bunch of young protesters led by Karim.

Abdel, who happens to be a decorated soldier of the French Army, tries to calm down others as much as possible. While helping many of his neighbors leave their apartment buildings for their safety, he also tries to persuade Karim and Karim’s protesters to be reasonable about their situation, but Karim is not so willing to listen to his older brother from the beginning. As a matter of fact, he and a bunch of protesters steal a big safe from the aforementioned police station during their ambush, and they are eager to open it even though they do not know what is actually in the safe.

Meanwhile, Moktar, who is incidentally a local drug lord, is more occupied with protecting his drug business from the conflict as much as he can. When the neighborhood is surrounded more by the police, he naturally feels more nervous than before, and that accordingly generates more conflict between him and his two brothers, who share the common contempt toward Moktar despite their very different viewpoints.

While shuffling among its three main characters, the movie also focuses a bit on several substantial supporting figures. We get to know a bit about a young married police officer who is understandably worried about his latest mission, and then we are also introduced to another police officer who seems to care a lot about getting things under control just like Abdel, and then there we later meet a certain disturbingly quiet man who turns out to be more experienced than Karim and his fellow protesters.

As the movie urgently hops from one narrative point to another, we get confused a bit from time to time, but the movie deftly immerses us into the chaotic circumstance surrounding its main characters and many other figures in the background. While I wish it could provide more background information for more understanding, the movie adamantly pays more attention to generating more verisimilitude along the story instead, and we often feel like being in the middle of the chaos along with its characters as a result.

Director/co-producer/co-writer Romain Gavras, who is incidentally the son of Costa-Gavras, and his crew members including cinematographer Matias Boucard and editor Benjamin Weill deserve to be praised for their technical efforts. As Boucard’s camera usually moves along with characters in fluid camerawork, Weill’s editing is succinctly precise without never interrupting the relentless narrative flow of the film, and that is further amplified by the effective score by GENER8ION. Besides its superlative opening sequence, there are also a number of excellent sequences which will dazzle any serious moviegoer, and, when I was watching the film early in this morning. I actually kept wondering how they shot these terrific sequences.

However, I also recognized some notable weak aspects in the screenplay written by Gavras and his co-writers Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar. Like Ly’s Oscar-nominated film “Les Misérables” (2019), the movie is surely angry and passionate about several social/political issues including racism and police brutality, but it sometimes stumbles as trying to balance itself between family melodrama and political drama. In addition, I think its inevitable ending could be more impactful without its very final scene, which is rather redundant in my inconsequential opinion.

Anyway, the movie remains to be a compelling piece of work thanks to Gavras’ commendable direction, and he also draws solid performances from his main cast members. While Dali Benssalah dutifully occupies the center, Sami Slimane often galvanizes the screen with his character’s righteous anger, and Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, and Alexis Manenti are also suitably cast in their respective roles.

In conclusion, “Athena” may not go further than what was shown in “La Haine” (1995) and “Les Misérables”, but it will give you a vivid cinematic experience you will not easily forget, and that may make you reflect more on its main subjects after it is over. Considering the current political circumstance of France as well as many other countries in Europe, the movie surely needs to be watched by more audiences out there, and that is just one of many good reasons for recommendation.

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