I love when a movie’s title card is late. I love when a movie has the gall to drop us right in, trusting that it can engulf our imaginations before being defined by anything as simple and inadequate as a name. Romain Gavras’ Athena’s title comes 11 minutes into the film, ripping through the smoke after the hottest cold open of the year.
The film, about a family whose loss at the hands of cops instigates a standoff between an apartment project (Athena) and a militarized police force, is an eruption from frame one. It is a holistic, unified flood of heat and smoke with one common, uncomplicated, destructive purpose.
Beginning on the stony face of soldier Abdel (Dali Benssalah), walking towards a press conference in his red beret and camo fatigues, ready to announce the company line about the murder of his little brother. The word “justice” gets thrown around and sounds as hollow as Abdel’s eyes look. As his speech ends, the camera floats through his audience, landing on his next youngest brother, Karim (Sami Slimane). Karim, Molotov cocktail in hand, flings his inciting incident and leads a raid: An explosion of young people rush a police station with firecrackers and bats and flags and—now—riot shields. They break into offices, steal documents and hop into a police van, flanked by bandana-clad comrades on motorcycles. Roman candles and their billowy refuse fill the air, clouding Karim and his crew until the camera suddenly defies reality and clears the air. Inhale: We’re outside, tearing down the road; the music swells when Technicolor tracksuits fly down the highway on dirt bikes, as friends and allies joyfully scream from the grassy sidelines.
They’ve pulled it off, and there’s only more unrest to come as they arrive at Athena. Greeted by friends and confused friends (the arrival of a police van is a cause for worry, ok?), the defenses are set and the residents are riled. And maybe they’re too happy with how riled they are. Their excitement is a little childish, a little selfish—the kids in the van encourage more and more tricks, tossing back profanity at the defeated pigs they left eating their dust—and completely engrossing.
This year’s All Quiet on the Western Front introduces and snuffs a similar action-movie naivety in young WWI troops. Broke kids looking for a way out (or, daring to dream, for some kind of glory) are always getting shafted. The imperfect doofuses in this operation (so proud they stole matching athletic wear, to look like a team) make the operation even more endearing and introduce an inescapable, encroaching feeling of tragedy. One blasts another to test a pilfered flak jacket, and you just know it’d go nuts on TikTok…until the one time it went wrong. But it doesn’t get a chance to.
The fun is cut short by Karim, leader of this coup. Slimane, ponytailed and purse-lipped, is a leader born. He organized these goobers, and he believes in them, but he has a tighter sense of purpose. He also has a clearer sense of consequence. He knows what’s coming: This is war.
As he struts across the top of the concrete structure his comrades have pulled into—smoke and debris only now beginning to obscure a blue, daylit sky that’ll soon turn into foggy, suffocating night—GENER8ION’s score switches to a choral, nearly reverential soundscape. Karim is a martyr walking, leading a doomed cause against a force designed to take him out, already sanctified by his film’s light and sound. Punctuated by chants of “Athena!” the camera finally, blessedly, pulls out as he reaches the edge. Flying out over the road leading up to the projects, a tight frame finally ogles some scale. Karim and his crew man the makeshift battlements, armed with shopping carts and flares, ready for an urban Helm’s Deep.
And then, after 11 minutes: Athena.
Less a title card than a reminder to breathe, it brings us our first cut and quickly establishes the sides and stakes of this conflict. These are hardscrabble, DIY kids going up against a well-funded organization designed to effect violence on communities exactly like theirs. As the camera keeps rolling, rushing, zooming around their initial raid, landing in their base, cowing to their leader’s demands, we are situated not only in their perspective but in their means. The movie doesn’t feel as if it’s been constructed by James Cameron, out of magic from the deep sea, the best computers, and unlimited funds. It feels like it was pulled off much like the controlled chaos we’re watching: With death-defying balls, with anything they could get their hands on, with a little smugness for having gotten this far at all. It’s exhilarating.
To appreciate the energy Athena’s opening derives, in part, from its uncut camera shot—applying LASIK to the unblinking eye of Dziga Vertov—is to recognize the limits of language. There may not be objective truth on screen, but this is cinéma vérité, Herzog style. An ecstatic truth obtained through planning, execution, and the pure visual energy required to uninterruptedly transform one to the other. No matter how expressive your writing, your sentence must come to an end: Athena can shoot and shoot and shoot some more, passing its camera between operators riding on motorcycles, clinging to speeding vans, and racing through packed hallways, and its unseen choreography is the (more than) perfect observer, the rebellious teen whose eyes miraculously record everything he sees; meanwhile, the only way I can keep your attention in the same unbroken fashion is through trickily deployed punctuation and a deluge of conjunctions—even then, it’s an ugly run-on. And did it even work? Or should I bombard you with snippets? Phrases julienne. Taken-style writing. Pop-pop sentences that go off like M-80s. Both strategies are exhausting, and express the limits of our attention spans and eyesight.
Unlike mine, Athena’s worries aren’t ones of form. It wants to be a bloodshot stare, kept conscious only through adrenaline and hate. It knows that’ll grab us. Shake us. It’s that confidence, that surety of aesthetic purpose, that gives it steel. Otherwise, you find yourself watching something flashy yet stilted: A one-shot wonder mapping out their technical roller coaster as a showcase for the logistical talent of their camera operators and track-laying grips. While these undersung pros could always stand a little more praise, without a more defined and aligned sense of purpose, a hyper-visible stylistic choice can take you out of the movie far more than suck you in.
Athena races by that possibility and pops a wheelie just to stunt on it. Athena! Athena! Athena!
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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