A furious protest film that fascinates with its technique – Ciné express

Anyone who has seen Alfonso Cuaron children of men will remember this stunning single-take sequence inside a vehicle carrying Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and two other passengers. Now imagine that level of craftsmanship multiplied by five, and you have a perfectly crafted 11-minute opening sequence in Romain Gavras’ infinitely furious new film, Athena. This sequence is loaded with sudden and extremely chaotic activity. We see a soldier Abdel (Dali Benssalah), who has just returned from service, learning of the murder of his 13-year-old brother, presumably because of police brutality. The camera then moves slowly to the right to capture a face in the crowd he is addressing. It belongs to his brother, Karim (Sami Slimane in a remarkable first album), who also happens to be the leader of a group about to ransack a police station. “It’s the war!” he declares. Karim possesses the charisma and demeanor of a military general. His movement demonstrates steely determination; its presence requires immediate attention.

Director: Romain Gavras

With: Sami Slimane, Dali Benssalah, Ouassini Embarek

Streaming on: Netflix

Cinematographer Matias Boucard follows Karim with the same rhythm as he enters the station, exits and joins his comrades to board a police van that has just been notched. It was only after a few minutes that I realized that the camera could slip out of the window of the vehicle while it was in motion and follow it from a parallel track before returning – not in the same way as before, however. There’s a lot more going on after that, but why bother with the details?

During the craft, the entire film is a series of multiple single-take sequences, all executed with remarkable skill. One might wonder if chronicling an intense riot warranted an approach that draws attention to itself – something that’s usually reserved for large-scale epics or war movies. I ask, why not? Take the opening of Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan. It’s the technique I remember more than the horrors enveloping the soldiers. Yes, what is happening around them is horrible, but what skill! Nothing wrong with the visceral impact, as long as there’s an attempt to elicit an emotional response too.

The photographic choices in Athena could be easily dismissed as a mere gimmick, but I think there’s a valid reason to support them. In the middle of the opening riot scene, a few jubilant members of Karim’s gang pull out their phones to document an exciting moment. At one point, the jokes become absurd enough to irritate Karim. What if, through a polished cinematic approach that mesmerizes us, Romain Gavras seeks to make – intentionally or not – 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 for looking for thrills in a film about brothers who seek justice for a sibling?

The other day, critic-filmmaker Paul Schrader, in a Facebook post on Athena, wondered if “the constant filling of the frame creates substance or just noise?” He also questioned the contemporary relevance of a film like the 1964 one. Cuban soybeans, noted for some amazing single takes. “What remains beyond technical dexterity? Schrader asked. It’s a thought that crossed my mind many times, especially when I remember something like birdman Where 1917. What is the lifespan of these films? Once people stop talking about the technical magic involved, do these movies stop being amazing?

It’s not just the characters of Athena are not convincing enough. They are, but this is one of those movies that I think needs to be watched with some detachment. We learn that the dead kid has three brothers. Besides Abdel and Karim, there is the brutal Mokhtar (Ouassini Embarek), who is on his own path, not legal besides – he seeks to profit from the chaos, much to the chagrin of Karim and Abdel. The three men have three different ideologies. On the one hand, there is Abdel, whose experience of war has given him enough wisdom to know that violent revenge is not the way to go; on the other, Karim, the unwavering revolutionary who does not intend to deviate from his trajectory. While Mokhtar’s actions are undoubtedly questionable, Karim and Abdel make sense when you see things from their perspective. It is this conflict – which of the two is right – which leads Athena.

When we get the answer, it disturbs us as much as any of the endings of the films directed by Govras’ father, the famous Franco-Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras who gave us thrillers as ardently political as Z (1969), The confession (1970), and State of siege (1972). Their purpose is not to make us happy, but to question the state of the world, the quiet forces at play, and how they facilitate violent moments in history. During a middle scene in Athena, a possibility that a right-wing group, not the cops, orchestrated the murder, emerges. This information adds another dimension when viewing the film in light of recent events. And when you think about his release as the Hijab protests rage in Iran, doesn’t that heighten the news?

In a recent interview, Romain said he doesn’t believe movies can change the world – that filmmakers don’t have a moral responsibility – that the idea is “to bring something to cinematic language and cinema table”. Well, that’s a statement for another long discussion.

About Debra D. Johnson

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