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Netflix's Athena: Romain Gavras takes on life in Parisian ghettos

The movie focuses on how residents of a fictional Paris suburb react after police officers kill a teenager
Police violence forces residents of a Paris suburb to take the law into their own hands in Athena (Iconoclast)

Romain Gavras’s combustible tour-de-force Athena is a grand Netflix production bound to stir debate in France.

The film is set in the fictitious Parisian suburb of Athena, which is entirely populated by working class Arabs and Black Africans.

Garvas, the son of iconic director Costa-Gavras, instantly throws the viewers in the middle of the action with an elaborate unbroken scene that sees a group of young men barge into a police station before fleeing with a bag full of weapons.  

A 13-year-old French-Arab teenager is thought to have been beaten to death by the police, propelling his brother Karim (Sami Slimane) to take the law into his own hands and assume full control of the housing project. 

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A guileless police officer (Anthony Bajon) is later captured by Karim and taken hostage, escalating the hostility between the police and the young Athena populace. 

Karim’s older brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a decorated army veteran, acts as a mediator between the French authorities and his brother’s angry militia, much to the chagrin of Karim, who views him as a double-faced collaborator. 

Meanwhile, elder brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) is a small-time drug lord comfortable with switching sides as long as his business is unaffected. 

The three brothers are essentially archetypes, taking on a number of limited ascribed roles afforded to the ghettoised non-white working class. Put simply, Karim, Abdel and Moktar have no prospects for class ascension.

Karim is too wounded, too desperate, to see a way out of this inferno. The self-serving Moktar knows that nothing may change, so no harm then in making some money out of a dead-end situation. 

Abdel naively believes that his work with the army may have earned him some credit with the powers that be, but with the first real test of that conceit, the reality of his fragile position is exposed - a jarring truth that renders his life-long work nothing but a mere quixotic endeavour for unattainable justice. 

'Bastard' children of France

Athena’s slender narrative is structured as Greek tragedy, replete with mistaken identities, double-crossings, and a sense of blind justice. 

The three are not without agency but for the economically disadvantaged, for the ghettoised, for the bastard children of France, the only achievable form of agency is violence. 

We know these characters: where they come from and how they’re shaped by a bureaucracy designed to subjugate them.

The movie by Romain Gavras if full of visual flourishes (Iconoclast)

There’s plenty of visual bravado on display and Gavras does not refrain from showing off his technical chops.

Make no mistake, Athena, which was co-written by the Mali-born Ladj Ly of 2019 drama Les Miserables, another story of a riot against the French police, is an action spectacle. 

Nevertheless, the burning pain and anger is never smothered under the weight of the visuals. Gavras eschews elaborate characterisation.

Athena is not about the awfully familiar narratives of a populace with unchanging conditions: it’s a visceral jolt aimed at the senses, an immersive experience set in an open prison with no escape.  

For the boys of Athena, their race may forever define them; for them, class ascension is an upward battle with no guaranteed results.

Athena is currently showing in select theatres in France and is being streamed globally on Netflix. 

Editor's note: This review was originally published in an earlier Middle East Eye article.

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