Romain Gavras Captures Police Brutality

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This review originally ran in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.

For those still under the false impression that police brutality towards Black people and other communities is an American-only form of racially motivated violent violence, “Athena,”Romain Gavras is a French director who creates a dramatic drama that explodes literally and metaphorically. This is his son, the legendary auteur Costa-Gavras.

Over the course of one fateful day in the aftermath of the brutal killing of a boy of Middle Eastern descent at the hands of a group of white men — either comprised of cops, members of a far-right clan, or perhaps one and the same — chaos erupts in the disenfranchised Parisian neighborhood of Athena, as young people revolt in response to such injustice. 

Gavras opens almost instantly and drops us right into the action “Athena” with one of cinematographer Matias Boucard’s incredibly impressive one takes that carry us from a press conference — where Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a police officer and an older brother to the victim, calls for calm — to the epicenter of the turmoil where barricades and fires abound.

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Karim (Sami Slimane), who is a young man and brother to the deceased, orders the army of youths to take control of buildings and to prepare to face the authorities with force, unless they reveal the names and murderers. In the first few minutes, “Athena,” it’s clear this is propulsive filmmaking with thematic substance.  

The complications increase as families flee the area. since an individual known for carrying out anti-government terrorist acts resides in Athena and a drug dealer, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) — coincidentally is also a sibling of Abdel and Karim — hides there as well.

When a new battalion of law-enforcement troops arrives, the camera focuses on a fresh-faced white police officer, Jérôme (Anthony Bajon), conspicuously announcing he will become a hostage to put pressure on the establishment to meet their demands.  

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The darkly operatic score of Surkin, which is integral to the feeling that this is an epic battle among the forces good and bad, almost in a sacred sense, is what makes it feel like the event is a grand battle between the forces.“Gener8ion”The choir voices are used to raise the grave stakes. A majestic shot of Karim standing in front of the fortress he built with his comrades. The media attention that their heroic battle has received makes the scene even more impressive.

Like co-writer Ladj Ly’s own directorial Oscar-nominated debut “Les Misérables,” Gavras’ latest falls into some heavy-handed messaging and schematic narrative elements. The fact that all the main characters are brothers and each one represents a different point of view within their community rings too contrived. Gavras and Ly may be exploring the limits and ideologic fractures of brotherhood in this instance, but their convenient approach renders it difficult. “Four Brothers”2005 is more convincing. 

Looking back at the last scene “Les Misérables,”A group of predominantly Black teenagers from a marginalized area fight back against the police at an apartment complex. “Athena”It feels like a continuation of the sequence as a feature-length story. Still, Gavras’ orchestrating reflects the urgency of the cause in the visual energy of the filmmaking: a perpetual state of disarray choreographed to appear organically conceived.

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The performances are the key to the impact of the heart-pounding imagery. Slimane’s stoic expression playing someone barely managing to contain the rage-laden grief that flows through his entire body makes it impossible to ignore, even for a second, the no-holds-barred determination that fuels his character, Karim. For Benssalah as the conflicted Abdel, the portrayal devolves from his initial attempts at deescalating — upholding his status as a cop above all else — into a terrifying state of visceral fury.

But for all Gavras’ remarkable direction and incendiary core themes, “Athena”Still, it maintains many of the familiar tropes associated with stories about those who are maltreated and abused fighting back against their abusers. The confrontation reaches frightening and deadly heights near the end. One might believe the filmmaker will cross a unspoken line and force the victimized person to be the bigger person to avoid becoming like their enemy.

While one can understand the fear that his protagonists will be subject to primitive retribution, the outcome of this story is much more symbolic and less transgressive. Furthermore, the creators decide to add an unnecessary epilogue that somewhat answers one of the film’s central questions but doesn’t much elevate our insight beyond what we already knew about the unseen inciting incident that gave way to the tempestuous plot.

Parallels between “Athena”Gavras senior is the most emblematic wok. “Z,”They are easy to spot. These two images reflect discontent in society and the determination of a few citizens to resist their impositions. Gavras may have yet to make a work as unmissable as his father’s masterwork, yet both come from the same spirit of resistance, visual vigor, and desire to use cinema as thought-provoking tool.

“Athena” premieres Friday, Sept. 23, Netflix U.S.

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