The words “A Netflix Original Film” do not immediately inspire confidence. Though the streaming pioneer has ramped up the frequency of their feature film releases, most of their output feels a little too at home there, mediocre time-killing fare that you watch because “it’s on Netflix” but are grateful not to have bought a ticket to see. Of course, there are exceptions, particularly during the final months of the year when streamers and conventional studios alike drop their Oscar hopefuls. Netflix has distributed five Best Picture nominees in the past four ceremonies (Roma, Marriage Story, Mank, Trial of the Chicago 7, The Power of the Dog), and while one imagines that the bulk of this year’s For Your Consideration campaign budget is earmarked for Noah Bambauch’s White Noise (out in December), Netflix should save some clout for Athena, a thriller from French director Romain Gavras. Athena is an engrossing and unflinching polemic, an “action-tragedy” that’s both a feast for the eyes and a dagger to the heart.
ATHENA ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Athena begins shortly after video is posted online of a 13-year-old boy being brutally murdered by police. (Mercifully, we are not shown the beating itself.) When the internal police investigation doesn’t yield speedy results, pandemonium erupts and a well-organized group of civilians raids a police station for weapons and riot gear. These protesters, led by the youngest of the victim’s three brothers Malik (Sami Slimane), transform their apartment complex into a fortress and demand justice. Caught in the middle are older brothers Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a police officer torn between his uniform and his community, and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a vicious drug dealer only concerned with his own profit and security. As their neighborhood becomes a war zone, the family finds it increasingly impossible to make peace, as does the country around them. Athena is shocking, partly because its events seem only about five minutes in our future. One could place its powder keg neighborhood in any city in any divided nation, particularly here in the United States, where another “war that pits brother against brother” seems at least as probable.
Athena is an impressive feat of filmmaking, dazzling from the start with its continuous, ten-minute opening shot, which follows the action from the beginning of a doomed press conference through the entire opening battle between police and protesters. Long takes have become an overused device during the age of digital filmmaking, but Romain Gavras offers a reminder of what a great one can accomplish, placing the viewer in a space and a perspective (or more impressively, a relay of perspectives) in a way that both erases and emphasizes the artifice of cinema. It’s chaos, perfectly choreographed, a directorial triumph to rival Alfonso Cuarón’s famous one-take car chase from Children of Men. (Gavras claims that Athena’s long takes were accomplished via months of rehearsal, without the aid of visual effects.) All of this razzle-dazzle would be meaningless, of course, without compelling performances to match, and both Sami Slimane and Dali Benssalah deliver heart-wrenching portrayals of men whose profound grief is but a single tessera in a larger mosaic of societal despair.
If the crop from this year’s Venice and Toronto film festivals is any indication, the coming months will be bursting with buzzy films vying for Oscar gold. There’s a chance that by February Athena will be relegated to the Best International Film category, or worse, forgotten by the Academy. Unlike its competition, however, Athena has already come home, and is the same number of clicks away as your fifth re-watch of Seinfeld, and makes for a perfect kickoff to a season of cinema that’s poised to spoil us rotten.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.