Athena erupts as a long protest-driven action climax


Athens, the latest film from music video director Romain Gavras, is a one-trick pony, but that trick is so formally dazzling that the film is an immersive experience. Composed of a number of long, labyrinthine takes punctuated by traditionally edited scenes, it follows three French-Algerian brothers in Paris – young and middle-aged adults from different walks of life – confused in the immediate aftermath of a harrowing family tragedy. .

Their youngest sibling, a child named Idir, has been murdered and the culprits caught on camera appear to be the French police. The eldest brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), is a drug and arms dealer who takes care of himself. Middle brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is a professional soldier dedicated to keeping order. The most flammable piece of the puzzle, however, is the youngest surviving brother, Karim (Sami Slimane), a charismatic leader with sad, sunken eyes, who causes a riot in his housing project that quickly spreads across the city.

The film’s introductory sequence sets the stage for numerous impressive scenes of state violence and anti-fascist uprising, each of which begins as a personal portrait before retreating to reveal a bigger picture. It begins during a pompous police press conference about the murder of Idir, where Abdel happens to be present and in uniform. The scene ignites when a group of angry protesters tosses a Molotov cocktail on the pulpit. The subsequent continuous take lasts more than 10 minutes.

Although the series begins in a highly sterilized environment, it quickly explodes into a chaos of knuckles, following Karim and dozens of other black-clad protesters as they not only claim weapons and police vehicles, but also drive them across the city in a high-octane chase. , back to the makeshift fortress they built in the Athena house complex (named, aptly named after the Olympian goddess of battle strategy).

This eruption, it seems, was a long time to come. Instead of revamping and reinterpreting the surrounding politics – as in the United States, police killings of civilians and the ensuing protests have dominated the headlines in France for years – Athens opens during a breathtaking climax that lasts for almost all of its 97 minutes. What we see while watching Athens is the beginning of an inevitable war.

Gavras captures it with cranes, drones and techniques that defy logic, and frames it with hundreds and hundreds of extras in twisting and huge patterns. It’s tactile, yet ethereal. The camera ducks between vehicles, shooting them from across the street like passing chariots, then rides alongside them and dives in with the characters, before retreating again to capture the staggering magnitude of the tumult.

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Gavras’ image of the action charges rapidly from one moment of violent resistance to the next, suggesting how widespread this fury is already by the time the film begins. But the staging of this opening scene also has a second function. It gives us the location of the land, a detailed picture of not only the visual and emotional texture of the film, but also of the streets between the police station and Athens, where countless spectators line the rooftops to cheer Karim, and where the rest of the story is going to unfold. It wasn’t long before neighboring housing projects announced their allegiance to Athena, as kingdoms joining the fray in Middle-earth.

Rarely has a film so recreated the feeling of riding a roller coaster, with peaks and valleys developing into an adrenaline rush, carefully resetting for each subsequent fall. Abdel and Karim lead opposing attacks as tides from SWAT teams invade fortified buildings filled with rioters. Meanwhile, their half-brother Moktar weaves in and out of both plots, primarily protecting his business interests while helping both sides. The three brothers represent facets of French society in the microcosm: the oppressor, the oppressed and the wealthy third parties who benefit anyway, whether they get involved or not. Their symbolism leads to a streamlined story that avoids the need for too much exposition about who, what or why.

The story is simple, but it runs the risk of becoming at easy. By throwing the audience headfirst into the chaos, Gavras obscures some of the more straightforward emotional material. Athens revolves around a brutal murder, and the ensuing plot plays out as a magnified externalization of grief that, after countless such state-sanctioned executions, has become uncontrollable. But the public never gets a chance to think about this grief, or really feel it through the brothers’ eyes. While the film occasionally slows down to reflect tender moments of communal mourning in the trio’s Muslim community (including a fleeting encounter with the brothers’ mother), there’s no pause to get to know the brothers beyond their prescribed limits. roles as symbols of greater unrest.

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That said, while the film rarely dramatizes their emotional wounds, this symbolic depiction also lends itself to the aesthetic approach Gavras has taken throughout his career. While Gavras has made two other narrative features (Our day will come and The world is yours), he is best known for his blistering music videos, most notably MIA’s “Born Free,” in which militarized police systematically hunt redheads in a fantasy racism scenario, and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” which features some of the most striking images of fervent protest in popular media.

Athens plays like a play version of the visual fixations in those videos – compressed narratives in which brutal state violence is a pre-existing condition whose basic diagnosis is an afterthought, but whose terminal symptoms Gavras explores in stark, visceral hues. (The film is also, in more subtle ways, a follow-up to Gavras’ video for his late friend DJ Mehdi’s “Signature,” a vivid portrayal of a suburban community where the camera captures details and experiences by moving through communal spaces.)

Athens is arguably a style-over-substance film, given how little time and attention it devotes to the personal drama underlying its politics. But in the hands of Gavras, style is also substance, with an understated classicism giving way to Baroque staging as each long take speeds up. Scenes are constructed in ways that feel both narratively inevitable and visually prophetic. Gavras and cinematographer Matias Boucard seem to explore the hidden dimensions of these clashes between police and protesters through movement – not just the movement of their subjects, but the movement of their camera, which tilts and swivels as if to capture every possible advantage. Speed ​​up the film even further and you’re left with something approaching cubist art, with dimensions and perspectives practically overlapping amid all the pandemonium.

The rehearsed nature of each long take isn’t just a fun gimmick, as it’s arguably the case in Sam Mendes’ 1917, a war film whose fake one-take design loses perspective on the characters’ surroundings, removing the tension. Instead, the choreography in Athens is his own symphony, which focuses on the living, breathing details of the brothers’ environment at every turn, as it builds to moments of darkness quickly consumed by flames. Thick smoke and flying embers soon become the standard lingua franca, as if it were an up-tempo remix of Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and peace. The music, from Gavras’ own collaborative project Gener8ion, combines droning, Hans Zimmer-esque percussion with operatic vocalizations in a steady state of crescendo. The music, like the image, rarely stops moving or progresses, but around every corner is a new and surprising confrontation, so that it never loses steam.

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Gavras shot Athens with IMAX cameras, which makes it all the more mature to be viewed as a captivating visual spectacle in the first place. (Unfortunately, the US theatrical release was limited to a week on one New York screen.) That said, watching a small screen on Netflix will likely still be emotionally charged, as another key ingredient is filmmaker Ladj Ly, who along with -wrote Athens with Gavras and producer Elias Belkeddar. Ly was the director behind the 2019 Les Miserables, a modern retelling of Victor Hugo’s novel that was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. Like Athensit focuses on tensions between the French police and communities of color, and it similarly leads to climactic outbursts.

His opinion Les Miserables is a fantastic film, and while its approach is more measured (and arguably more nuanced) than Athens‘s, combining Ly’s community focus with Gavras’ bold, mile-a-minute styling results in a handful of quiet moments. These accentuate the restlessness, allowing for brief but fleeting interruptions. Before the audience knows it, the characters are back in the fray, in a chaotic world that threatens to consume them. And their own unstoppable anger is just as dangerous. Of AthensGavras transforms that rage into living dioramas that are technically so overwhelming that they also become emotionally arousing.

Athens streams on Netflix from September 23.

The post Athena erupts as a lengthy protest-driven action climax appeared first on Polygon.


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