Venice 2022: Romain Gavras & Ladj Ly’s ‘Athena’ Absolutely Rules
by Alex Billington
September 3, 2022
“Revolutions are not about trifles, but spring from trifles.” – Aristotle. This is one of THE most exhilarating films of the year, I want to watch it again and bring everyone. Athena instantly joins the ranks as one of the best revolution films ever made. It is an extraordinarily propulsive, spectacular cinematic experience that starts with an all-timer opening action scene and never lets up. I was totally blown away by this phenomenal urban warfare French thriller that just premiered in competition at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Athena is a Netflix production, but that isn’t an issue here considering it feels like it is a revolutionary film that isn’t restrained or diminished by the Netflix sheen that plagues too many other Netflix movies. This is a one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping work of art that absolutely must be seen on the big screen. If Netflix were better about showing films in cinemas, they’d be hosting monthly screenings of this in theaters all over the world, similar to the way The Rocky Horror Picture Show continues to rock movie theaters decades later. Karim forever!!!!
Athena is directed by the very talented French filmmaker Romain Gavras (of Our Day Will Come and The World Is Yours previously) and co-written by Elias Belkeddar, Romain Gavras, and Ladj Ly – the talented French filmmaker behind the film Les Miserables a few years ago. It’s no surprise that when Ly and Gavras team up, they make something unforgettable. Athena is a modern take on an ancient Greece epic war story (similar to Troy) and this is blatantly obvious throughout BUT it still absolutely rocks in terms of being an awe-inspiring action film about a clash between youths and cops at a tower block. It’s set in the suburbs and begins in the middle of a battle – the people from these tower blocks are fighting against the cops, who have (apparently) killed a young boy. They want the cops who killed the kid to be identified and imprisoned, and won’t give up until that happens. It’s also the story of brothers, three of them, and how they interact during this revolutionary time. They’re powerful leaders, but each has a mind of his own, with different allegiances.
If you can’t handle films about revolutions, then stay away from this one. Athena reminds me of another unforgettable revolutionary film – V for Vendetta. Many people seem afraid these days of how society works and the truth about the way humanity operates – wars and revolutions and battles are an integral part of history and progress on this planet. Whether you like it or not, it’s true, and the oppressed must fight their oppressors to free themselves from that oppression. Just because this movie is set in modern times doesn’t mean we should be scared of it. If you can watch a movie like Troy and be entertained by it, even though it’s almost the same story just set hundreds of years earlier, then it’s possible to be entertained and invigorated by Athena as well. And don’t forget, it is just a movie, the violence isn’t real but it is mirroring reality and what can / does happen all the time on streets around the world. Many French films recently are about the clash between cops and citizens, but this is the first to show this clash escalating into an all-out fucking war.
It’s not often this happens, so when it does I can’t help rave about it. Athena is one of these films where I’m watching and I think “I have no fucking idea how the hell they shot this scene.” How the hell did they got this shot?! Are all these fireworks real?! How are so many people so perfectly involved in this set piece and the camera movements so smooth and the action all so perfectly coordinated?! The film has mindblowing cinematography from Matias Boucard with lengthy one-take shots that rival the greatest-of-all-time one-takes in Victoria, 1917, and Atonement. It’s also non-stop intense – the vigorous pacing is so gripping it almost feels like a theme park ride, where your heart races until it’s over, but in this case it’s a 97 minute theme park ride with fire and smoke and special effects galore. All this is topped off by a riveting, powerful score by Gener8ion (a collaboration between Gavras and Benoît Heitz). Everything about the experience of watching this film is exhilarating and I hope audiences around the world will somehow get opportunities to watch this film on the big screen with perfect projection and loud-as-fuck sound – the way it should be seen.
As much as I want to give Athena a perfect score, there is one little issue I have with it and that’s the ending. By the time it gets there, it’s a bit too on-the-nose with what it’s trying to say (even though it is meaningful), ultimately the message it’s trying to deliver with this story and all this action. The hints throughout are not strong enough and it needed a scene or two earlier to properly build up this reveal. It spends all its time on the clash between cops and citizens and needed something more that we could chew on to consider where it’s leading to and why that matters – taking away slightly from what Ly and Gavras are trying to say with Athena. The message is pretty clear – there is something else out there that is a greater evil, a greater threat. We spend way too much time arguing and infighting and dealing with petty problems rather than realizing there is a need to unite and fight this other evil together. We must learn to trust each other and recognize there is more going down than what’s happening on our block. Hopefully this idea will still resonate anyway.