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MOVIES: Athena - Review

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Roman Gavrais’ Athena feels like it exists in a moment. Its opening shot immediately makes a bold statement; utilising one-shot cinematography in a way that few films can rival – feeling like a feature in on itself. The chaos of urban warfare is depicited before your eyes as the youth of Paris clash with Paris; a movement in revolt – the last few minutes of 2019’s Les Miserables extended into a full-length feature can be a daunting task, but it captures the bitterness and resentment towards the police that has been boiling for a long time when a brother of two siblings gets killed in the crossfire by the police on the back of several murders committed by law enforcement in recent times. Whilst not based on any one true story, Athena can’t help but feel like it has a statement to make – bold and fearless; designed to incite and provoke. It catches lightning in a bottle and makes it strike once, twice, three times. You’re not witnessing anything but one of the boldest films of the year – with a voice that backs up its powerful, unflinching commitment to truth.

The source of the film’s name will give you a clue that it’s not a happy go-lucky event; Athena is rife with tragedy, betrayal and despair. This is a film that owes a lot of similar influences to Les Miserables – the likes of Training Day, La Haine (of course), are heavy as they come. Thick and fast with an unflinching no-hope compromise, the one-shot faux cinematography akin to 1917 only serves as an immersive way into the film itself. It’s become more prevalent over the years but stripped down to its essentials whilst given a stylish tint from the director of numerous music videos; Athena plunges you headfirst into chaos and doesn’t let up. We get the information about who these brothers are; played by Dali Benssalah and Sami Slimane – who start out as cop and revolutionary. They clash – Benssalah’s Abdel is on as vengeance-driven quest as his brother; and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks as the lines between both sides quickly become blurred. There’s no space for compromise. There’s no space for compromise – and heightened, masculine emotions are very much at their forefront. This is toxic environment where the tension is consistently high – and for its short length, well under two hours, Athena revels in keeping it consistently high throughout.

Whilst I won’t spoil it here – despite keeping the tension at a sustained pace; the film does dovetail a bit in its last act – but that’s only a minor mark against it. It’s one hour, thirty-nine minutes – and packs so much into it that it barely slows down. The revolutionary opening shot is nothing short of chaos – a whole city aflame, burning around you – breakdown in motion. Escalation and tension is apparent from the offset – there’s no room for error on either side. City blocks are a maze from which there is no way out from – taught, claustrophobic, shaky. Keeping the film split between its multiple narratives – Slimane’s Karim controls his revolution on the ground with anguish of someone clearly in mourning – Athena feels very much in touch with its youth movement. It doesn’t talk down, it doesn’t patronise. The dialogue can feel forced but it can be watched with minimal attention to the dialogue and still land every moment – few films lean into the visual element as much. Like Monos in 2019 and 1917 the same year; Athena makes the most of film as a visual medium and the cinematography is appropriately stellar. Matias Boucard is the DOP and, in his hands, Athena looks next level good. The ending may be the only black mark against this film, but even so – it still hits its mark ninety per cent of the time; more than most American film this year – more than most films this year. Tour-de-force is an overused phase, but Athena feels very much worthy of its example – an iconoclast in practice and formula – it’s a film tailor-made for the big screen, which makes its lack of attention on Netflix, thrown away with little to no promotion, feel shameful. If it were given the right care you’re not just looking at a foreign language nomination (which it wasn’t even part of the shortlist for); you’re looking at a winner. Just a shame we never got the chance to see it where it could be viewed best.

Athena is currently streaming on Netflix.

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