By Rahul Desai
Wisdom is sacrificed at the altar of rage in Athena, a self-styled Greek tragedy named after the Greek Goddess of wisdom and war. Romain Gavras’ action thriller unfolds in modern-day France – in a disenfranchised neighbourhood called Athena – where violence erupts after the racist murder of a 13-year-old boy of Algerian origin. An immigrant-heavy banlieue becomes the epicenter of a rapidly escalating riot. The narrative is composed of the disparate reactions of the boy’s three brothers. Karim, the youngest, defies his babyface and flowing Jesus-like locks to become the conductor of this symphony of violence; he believes that his kid brother was the victim of police brutality. Moktar, the oldest, is a crook who is too corrupt to grieve; all he cares about is a drug deal that’s in danger of going bust. Abdel, the sanest of the lot, is a decorated soldier whose loyalties are torn between his family and the law-enforcement authorities. Despite wearing the “enemy” uniform, Abdel is the only one capable of reasoning with – and subduing – a rampaging Karim. A young cop named Jerome is caught in the crossfire; his fate becomes key to the brothers’ moral conflicts.
Athena caught fire at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, not least due to its daring film-making language. The film features a series of single-take sequences – stunningly conceived and choreographed, spanning multiple locations and attacks and emotions and transitions and transgressions. It opens with a statement-making 12-minute shot, that starts with Abdel addressing the press at a police station, before Karim and his gang hurl Molotov cocktails into the crowd, trigger total chaos, hijack a police van and barrel across town to the banlieue, the unofficial headquarters of his army of rioters. All along, the Children-of-Men-esque camera weaves through smoke and bodies, swerving into vehicles and across highways. The long take closes with a wide drone shot of the guerilla mob occupying a terrace, with the title of the film emerging in a way that almost frames them as a punk-rock motion poster. Nearly every subsequent scene is unbroken, even as the older residents of the area pour out while the police arrive to turn Athena into a reluctant battleground.
As a cinephile, it’s hard not to be spellbound by the audacity of Athena. A short documentary on its making is available on Netflix’s Youtube channel; the staggering coordination and risks taken by the cameramen have only contextualized these feelings. Personally, I can’t remember a more electrifying ‘small-screen’ experience. But what’s been more fascinating is the discourse surrounding this film. Contrary to type, the reception has not been entirely positive. A lot of the criticism is rooted in the film’s supposed strength: its breathless craft. More than a few reviews – particularly those emerging from France itself – have accused the film of being gimmicky, shallow and “politically casual” in its pursuit of aesthetic glory. Understandably, there have been concerns about whether the film fetishizes the fractures of contemporary French society. Is the visual dazzle a front for a simplistic message? Is there a message at all? Is it enough to blame right-wing radicalists for the distrust between society and its gatekeepers?
As is routinely the case with technically expressive cinema, Athena, too, raises suspicions of style hijacking the substance; the “how” might reduce the “what” to a mere footnote. Which, in this case, translates to all those elaborate one-take shots and quasi-Biblical imagery (especially that police shield scene) distracting from the real-world commentary of Athena. Does anyone care, eventually, for the actual madness when the method is so mesmeric? Is the anatomy of a shot more important than the audit of a gunshot?
Athena, however, isn’t your average provocateur. Most single-take movies – or movies replete with this technique – like to flaunt their technical bravado. But the style of Athena – just like the style in Sam Mendes’ 1917 (where several shots are seamlessly stitched together to create the illusion of one unbroken take) – is actually its substance. The how is also its what. The in-the-moment filmmaking is immersive, yes, but it also exposes a difficult truth about the relationship between reality and fiction. We often expect stories to know their own place in the linearity of time. It’s not enough for moments to exist on screen; they must unfold with a preordained sense of hindsight and purpose, like they know where they’re heading much before they reach there. It’s why we anticipate a message, a theme, a promise of the sort of wisdom that life itself is incapable of detecting in present tense. By committing to the immediacy of action, Athena restores the inside-out structure of a historical event. The cameras are so busy capturing the chaos that they can’t afford to address our macro notions of what the chaos should mean.
The ‘story’ doesn’t pretend to be more aware than the humans at the core of it. Its ripples are not rupturing the fabric of time, which is why the people going through it all – Abdel, Karim, Jerome – aren’t bothered about what their decisions will look like beyond the next bullet. This is in fact what history looks like – untethered, individualistic, instinctive, angry – in its most isolated form. The journey of its creators is invariably personal, and it’s the world who looks (back) at them as politically charged and culturally motivated. The significance of the violence in Athena is therefore incidental, informing a parallel universe of internet news and global viewership. The long takes are visible at first, but they soon morph into the grammar of life itself – where feelings cannot be edited, transformations cannot be condensed, lives cannot be untaken, and where minds can gear through the highs of revolution and the lows of retribution in one fell swoop.
A single shot shows Abdel pleading with his unhinged brother, watching him die, going into shock, losing control, grieving, shedding his image and morphing into the very beast he failed to tame. Most ‘war’ films might have constructed this transformation as a cumulation of rhyme and reason. But Athena thrives on the primality of human nature, not once allowing the narrative to recognize its own identity as a narrative. As a result, the story doesn’t really begin or end – the film opens with several stories already in motion (you can sense the flashbacks of the brothers without needing to see them), and closes when the ongoing story loses its primary people. The gimmick is that we are watching a world that’s oblivious of its influence on politics, posturing and everything in between. The mythology of survival simply morphs into the psychology of perishing.
To draw an analogy, humans are conditioned to assume that shutting their eyes edits their existence – sleeping is treated as the time-lapse montages of life. But a film like Athena reveals the sleeplessness of both justice and tragedy. It doesn’t shut its eyes so much as blink them in quick succession. In doing so, Athena is more awake to the guilelessness of man-made conflict – a sum-total of the futility of wisdom and the freedom of war.