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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Athena // Film Review

It’s early days, but the opening sequence of Athena will probably be looked back on as one of the great action film spectacles of the 21st century.

This sounds like hyperbole - every film released these days is ‘one of the great’ of something, but in this case nothing comes close to the specific achievement made here. It is the culmination of a movement of action filmmaking; the uncut tracking shot following individuals through a gradual build until eventually the entire set erupts in bullets and fire, with elaborate choreography and planned explosions. Netflix are particularly fond of this style, having used it as a talking point for both Extraction and The Gray Man only in the last two years.

What makes the opening of Athena special is the three or four points in the rising action where the scene could end and still be lauded. Where most ‘one shot’ gimmicks almost beg us to admire them based on the precision of the technique, Athena just keeps daring to go bigger, taking us from a police conference to a riot through the police station through an urban car chase and then up the rooftops to finally reveal its flashy title card with utterly earned confidence. The sequence co-ordinates armies of extras, countless moving vehicles and a stretch of land the length of a city. It is a true feat, the likes of which very rarely comes along anymore.

There was a point after the title card drop when I started to worry, as it appeared that director Romain Gavras was planning to continue with the ‘one shot’ trick, but it quickly becomes apparent that the technique, beloved in online circles to the point where studios see it as an open-goal for a ‘cool’ action sequence, is of little interest to Gavras on its own. Each scene features only a handful of cuts, this is true, but that is only because the urban riot that runs through the ninety-minute runtime of Athena is accomplished almost entirely through practical effects and measured direction. Who wouldn’t want to show that off?

Athena is the story of a siege at a block of Paris flats, where locals led by revolutionary Karim (Sami Slimane) insist on justice for the death of Karim’s child brother Idir, who was murdered by men in police uniforms. Karim goes so far as to take one of the police officers or ‘feds’ hostage, demanding that his brother’s killers be sacrificed by dawn or else. The only man who might be able to get through to him is his other brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah), who also grieves Idir but wants to put an end to the violence.

The film bounces between their two viewpoints, following Karim as he doubles down with each new act of violence, and then putting us into Abdel’s shoes as he fights his way through the chaos to set the fed free. Though predominantly focused on the anarchic visuals, from firework battles to wince-worthy fist fights with riot gear enforcers, Athena is mostly successful at balancing the viewpoints of these two brothers, both lost in the madness and searching for someone to blame. Where the film stumbles is in its third act, where Abdel and Karim are pushed to their breaking points and, out of seeming insanity, make a series of brutally violent decisions that happen too quickly to entirely track.

Given its roots in reality, Athena was never going to have a happy ending, but the spectacle pretty much has to carry us through the finale once the story beats start to get a bit confused. That’s forgivable though; once in a blue moon, there is space for cinema of pure sensation, and this one more than earns its stripes.

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival 2022.


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