Anyone who has seen Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men will remember that stunning single-take sequence inside a vehicle carrying Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and two other passengers. Now, imagine that level of craft multiplied by five, and you get an immaculately conceived 11-minute opening sequence in Romain Gavras’ infinitely furious new film, Athena. This sequence comes loaded with sudden, extremely chaotic activity.
We see a soldier Abdel (Dali Benssalah), who just returned from service, learning about the murder of his 13-year-old brother, presumably from police brutality. The camera then slowly pans to the right to catch a face in the crowd whom he is addressing. It belongs to his brother, Karim (Sami Slimane in an outstanding debut), who also happens to be the leader of a group about to ransack a police station. “It’s war!” he declares. Karim possesses the charisma and demeanour of a military general. His movement demonstrates steely resolve; his presence demands immediate attention.
Cinematographer Matias Boucard follows Karim with the same rhythm as he goes into the station, comes out and joins his comrades to board a just-nicked police van. Only after a couple of minutes did it hit me that the camera could slide out of the vehicle’s window while it’s in motion and track it from a parallel lane before getting back in—not in the same way as before, though. A lot more happens after this, but why bore you with the details?
While on the craft, the entire film is a series of several single-take sequences, all executed with remarkable flair. One might ask if chronicling an intense riot warranted an approach that calls attention to itself—something that’s reserved, usually, for big-scale epics or war movies. I ask, why not? Take the Omaha beach opening of Saving Private Ryan. It’s the technique I remember more than the horrors enveloping the soldiers. Yes, what’s happening around them is horrible, but what craftsmanship! Nothing wrong with the visceral impact, as long as there is some attempt to elicit an emotional response too.
The camera choices in Athena might get easily dismissed as mere gimmick, but I think there is a valid reason backing them up. In the middle of the opening riot scene, a few jubilant members of Karim’s gang take out their phones to document an exciting moment. At one point, the fooling around gets quite absurd to the point where it irks Karim. What if, through a polished cinematic approach that mesmerises us, Romain Gavras is looking to make—intentionally or otherwise—a statement about how some people dispassionately consume dark events? Is he trying to say that people will forget an incident after a while, once the novelty factor wears off, and then move on to the next big thing? Should we feel guilty about seeking thrills in a film about brothers seeking justice for a sibling?
The other day, critic-filmmaker Paul Schrader, in a Facebook post about Athena, wondered whether the “constant filling of the frame creates substance or just noise?” He also questioned the contemporary relevance of a film such as 1964’s Soy Cuba, noted for some astonishing single takes. “What remains beyond the technical dexterity?” asked Schrader. It’s a thought which has crossed my mind several times, especially when remembering something like Birdman or 1917. What’s the shelf life of these films? Once people stop talking about the technical wizardry involved, do these films stop being amazing?
It’s not that the characters in Athena are not compelling enough. They are, but this is one of those films that, I feel, should be observed with a degree of detachment. We learn that the dead kid has three brothers. Aside from Abdel and Karim, there is the brutish Mokhtar (Ouassini Embarek), who is on his own path, not a legal one at that— he is looking to profit from the chaos, much to the chagrin of Karim and Abdel. The three men have three different ideologies. On one side, there’s Abdel, whose war experience has given him enough wisdom to know that violent payback is not the right way to go about it; on the other, there’s Karim, the unwavering revolutionary with no plans to deviate from his course. While Mokhtar’s actions are undoubtedly dubious, Karim and Abdel make sense when one sees things from their point of view. It’s this conflict —who among the two is right —driving Athena.
When we get the answer, it unsettles us as much as any of the endings in the films made by Govras’ father, the famed French-Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras who gave us such fervently political thrillers as Z (1969), The Confession (1970), and State of Siege (1972). Their aim is not to make us happy, but to make us question the state of the world, what discreet forces are at play, and how they facilitate violent historical moments. At a midpoint scene in Athena, a possibility that a right-wing group, not cops, may have orchestrated the murder, pops up. This information adds another dimension when we see the film in light of recent events. And when you think about its release while the Hijab protests are raging in Iran, doesn’t it accentuate the topicality?
In a recent interview, Romain said he doesn’t believe that films can change the world—that filmmakers don’t have a moral responsibility— that the idea is to “bring something to the cinematic language and the cinematic table.”
Well, that’s a statement for another long discussion.
Director: Romain Gavras
Cast: Sami Slimane, Dali Benssalah, Ouassini Embarek
Streaming on: Netflix