Romain Gavras's story of violent social rage is one of the most technically ambitious and proficient films of the year
When an actor gives a breakout performance in any large-scale action movie, it’s not uncommon to hear calls of “auditioning for the next Bond film.” What is rarer is the journey taken by Dali Benssalah, whose tussles with Daniel Craig’s superspy, as villainous henchman Primo in No Time To Die, seem like a light audition for the chaos of Romain Gavras’s Athena. An urban war movie told through a series of gruelling, head-spinning long takes, the action here is relentless and personal, anchored by Benssalah’s furious performance.
He’s not the only lead, though, in a tale that draws in an entire Parisian banlieue after a group of unidentified police officers beat a 13-year-old Muslim boy named Idir to death and refuse to release details to the public. We open at a press conference at a police station near the Athena banlieue. Idir’s adult brother, decorated veteran Abdel (Benssalah) appeals for both justice and calm alongside his lawyer, before a veritable army, led by youngest surviving brother Karim (Sami Slimane), breaks in and starts looting police vehicles and weapons, luring the cops back to Athena for a violent siege.
It’s an audaciously ambitious opener, 10 minutes of massive melee clashes and vehicular chaos, all stitched together seamlessly to look like an unbroken take, an absolute coup of choreography and planning from Gavras. It’s a hugely thrilling and impressive start and things pretty much only escalate from there. Athena isn’t a full one-take movie a la Victoria, nor does it even aim to copy the Birdman/1917 model of looking like it is, but each individual sequence is done as a oner, and the results are often breathtaking.
Obviously, it’s a very showy technique, one that will be rightly lauded for its pure technical prowess, but it also works to elevate an otherwise slightly flimsy story – co-written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar, and Ladj Ly, whose own Les Miserables covered relatively similar ground. By only cutting to bookend sequences, Gavras forces us to get to know the nooks and crannies of Athena and, through a deep understanding of its geography, adds a visceral reality to this community that is being rapidly torn to shreds.
It also helps to see the physical demands of the story genuinely weigh on the cast, who give strong performances but aren’t always given many places to go, emotionally. Benssalah manages to really evolve as the film progresses – the moment in which he stops trying to act as a mediator and finally takes a side as a leader is brief but extraordinary, a tiny moment of unsettling calm that feels like the eye of the storm passing over, but not everyone else does.
Slimane, in his debut role, impresses in his opening scenes, even if the role does eventually devolve into mostly breathy shouting. Karim is a natural leader but Slimane lets us see the insecurity roiling beneath the surface; the moment in which his voice cracks as he confronts eldest brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a far more serious criminal who sees the police siege as nothing more than a roadblock to his business, is brilliantly telling. Everyone else is simply caught in the chaos, often just treading water until the next big action beat, and this obscuring of the more human, personal stakes starts to get to the story too, which gives itself a far too easy get out clause towards the end.
There’s also some silly stuff that gets a bit too comic book (Athena is harbouring some secret super-terrorist who, for whatever reason, just waits around quietly until the plot needs him), and it would have been nice for Gavras to just have a bit more courage in his convictions in a story of deep-rooted social rage. For the most part, though, these problems are incinerated in the brutal, relentless kineticism of the film harbouring them. It’s not quite the modern-day Battle of Algiers that it often seems to want to be, but Gavras’s ferocious ambition is more than enough fuel to keep Athena’s fires burning.
Athena is released on Netflix on 23 September.Where to watch