Paris is Burning

France goes up in flames in the anti-police brutality film ‘Athena’

Civilization is a tinderbox and racism is the match. So roars the Paris-is-burning cri-de-coeur Athena, Romain Gavras’ incendiary condemnation of police brutality, structural bigotry, the stains of a colonialist past and the distorting echo chamber of media amplification. Feeding it all is a bone-deep anguish that spreads like a metastatic cancer. This agitprop action movie is a feverish tragedy told at a fever pitch, using rhapsodic, extended and seemingly uninterrupted tracking shots to make this visceral nailbiter feel simultaneously riveting and claustrophobic. The first ten minutes alone, all filmed in a single take, are a jaw-dropping display of orchestrated anarchy, mayhem captured with precise cinematic timing and spreading with the hypnotic intensity of a wildfire. This is no ruminative thought piece, or a meditation on the state of things: this is pure, uncut rage.

ATHENA ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Romain Gavras
Written by: Romain Gavras, Ladj Ly, Elias Belkeddar
Starring: ADali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Athony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, Alexia Manenti
Running time: 99 min

Imagine a Gallic George Floyd moment. In this case, it’s the death of a French-Algerian named Idir at the hands of three officers—the third case of police brutality in two months. Someone caught the incident on video and leaked it to the press; and now, 24 hours later, 30 cities are burning. Civil War in France, declares a broadcast-news chyron.

The spark that started it all happens at the Athena Estate, the low-income housing project where Idir lived. His brother Karim (Sami Slimane) instigates a well-orchestrated assault there by throwing a Molotov Cocktail into the police precinct responsible for Idir’s death. Showering the cops with a barrage of fireworks and flares, Karim and his men steal guns and cars with thuggish abandon, then race back to the fortified walls of Athena to regroup and prepare for an all-out counter-assault. Someone stole a bulk delivery of black-and-orange soccer tracksuits, and they serve as both uniform and disguise. “We’re a real team!” one of them barks. “Like an army.”

The real platoons soon arrive: hundreds of officers in riot gear, helmets, and shields pour into the streets around Athena and start to advance, but the neighborhood’s relentless resistance keeps them at bay. Karim’s objective is to kidnap an officer and hold him hostage until the authorities identify the people who killed Idir. The only problem is that the cops are planning a synchronized attack at dawn. Urban Warfare, declares the media. Hard to disagree, especially when a deranged terrorist hiding out in Athena gets the go-ahead to secretly string together propane tanks from apartment kitchens and make the situation even more explosive.

It’s hard to recall a movie so single-minded in capturing—and maintaining—a state of absolute fury in the face of such utter despair. It’s as though Gavras took the climactic ending of Do the Right Thing and turned it into an entire feature film. Think of Athena more aptly as the spiritual sequel to Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s 2019 drama about police violence inflicted on Paris’ inner-city ethnic groups which ends with a harrowing showdown in a housing project. Not surprisingly, Gavras here enlisted Ly as his co-screenwriter.

Athena is a wild ride, but it’s a better experience than a story, with core emotional conflicts propped up on some shaky schematic underpinnings. Karim is the ghetto ringleader, an avenging angel for his dead brother Idir. But there’s another brother, Adbel (Dali Benssalah), a cop as well as a French military vet who is trying to talk sense into Karim. And then there’s yet another brother named Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), the neighborhood drug dealer. They all have the same mother, but not the same father, and they function more like representative archetypes of the Algerian immigrant experience than persuasive characters.

Besides, Gavras seems less invested in his thinly sketched protagonists and more interested in designing the kind of spectacular set pieces that magically seem to transcend any technical challenges. But that doesn’t mean he succumbs to happy endings or pat solutions. A virtuosic music director for, among others, M.I.A.’s “Born Free” and “Bad Girls” as well as Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” Gavras revels in provocative imagery of state-sanctioned violence, racial tensions, daredevil stunts, and street-fighter rebellion, and seems to know that these deep-rooted conflicts are more likely to fester and bleed than heal anytime soon. Athena is a logical progression of his earlier works, not only expanding on his revolution iconography but bringing it to a despairing fruition in a climax full of dark irony and a chilling sense of oblivion.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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