FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE YET TO SEE ATHENA, THIS IS A NON-SPOILER REVIEW.
Athena is the third feature film from French director Romain Gavras, who is most well-known for his music videos, such as M.I.A.’s Bad Girls. He uses every tool in his arsenal to create a gritty, unflinching, and visceral war movie that takes place on the city streets. From a technical standpoint, Athena is absolutely spectacular and one of the finest filmmaking achievements of the year. However, on a storytelling level, it falters… especially when it comes to developing its characters.
THE FILM STARTS OUT WITH A BANG…
Gavras starts his film out with an eleven-minute tracking shot that immediately plunges the audience right into the throes of battle. This sequence is so breathtaking, that one will wonder how exactly the director will be able to top himself in the rest of the movie. The camera weaves in and out through hundreds of extras, as Molotov cocktails are thrown, shots are fired, fists are flying, and fireworks are whizzing by… the control Gavras has of his environment and the way he is able to stage his long shots rival that of what Sam Mendez did with 1917 and Alfonso Cuaron with Children of Men… Two movies that Athena reminds me very much of, not just for this reason.
AND NEVER LETS UP!
And don’t expect the movie to slow down at any point after the heart-pounding opening, because Athena never lets up. It is non-stop war action from beginning to end, and your willingness to accept that will ultimately lead to if you will appreciate this film or not. The relentlessness of the brutality and chaos is exhausting… and even though there are a couple of moments of reprieve from the pandemonium, they are few and far between. In this way, I think that Gavras has succeeded in his wish to put the audience right into the thick of war and allow us to realistically see it for what it is. It was a brave choice to make this the entirety of Athena’s DNA… and while it is effective, I couldn’t help, but as a viewer yearn for more small, quieter moments to allow for room to breathe.
WHAT IS ATHENA ALL ABOUT?
In Athena, we follow three brothers who are all dealing with the grief of losing their youngest, in vastly different ways. Karim is furious at the police who fail to take accountability for their actions and is the catalyst for the ensuing war. There is Moktar, who is more concerned with keeping his illicit businesses intact during all of the mayhem. And finally, we have Abdel, a war hero and now a cop, who is put right in between his family and his country. What plays out between the three of them is akin to a modern Greek Tragedy. Though this is a French film, its themes are universal… Gavras takes a cue from the horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police and the countless other senseless acts of violence that have occurred around the globe by people in power, to frame his story.
WHAT IS THE DIRECTOR TRYING TO SAY WITH HIS FILM?
The director captures the feeling of restlessness and rage of our current society to a tee. And even though the story is extremely bare-bones, Gavras is still able to get his statement across. People are angry and fed up. They are sick and tired of their voices not being heard and their own being slain at the hands of the forces who are supposed to protect them. And although it is a call-to-arms, it is also refreshingly, a cautionary tale, as well. We seek revolution, but at what cost? Is it worth it in the end, to stoop to the level of our oppressors? So, while the narrative is basic, the intent behind it is quite powerful.
CAN THE ATHENA GET PAST ITS LACKING CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT?
But, the emotional wallop needed to elevate Athena to the next level never came to fruition. Why? Because Gavras doesn’t give his characters time to be fully fleshed out. These brothers end up just being pawns in getting Gavras’ point across, rather than being people you can connect to. I wish that the director hadn’t been so quick to throw us into the action at the very beginning. If he had put in the time to set up his story and characters and then set off the powder keg… Athena would have probably been an all-out masterpiece.
As is, I still think this is a must-watch. Very rarely do we get to lay witness to such bravura filmmaking, and I believe it should be celebrated. I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for Romain Gavras… if this is only his third feature, then he has a bright road ahead.
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