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A couple of weeks ago, I trekked out to the Paris Theater in Manhattan to see Athena, the newest film from French director Romain Gavras, on a whim and with a strong recommendation from critic Bilge Ebiri.
The film, which dropped on Netflix last Friday and debuted at no. 2 on Netflix’s self-reported Non-English Movie List with 6.92 million hours viewed, kicks off with an 11-minute long take that was easily worth the price of admission.
The tension builds slowly and explodes all at once as the film opens on a scene that’s more than familiar: Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a decorated veteran in uniform, speaks at a press conference and calmly calls for the names of the police officers responsible for killing his 13-year-old brother (whose death was filmed and went viral) to be released. But any thoughts of a peaceful protest are quickly thrown out the window as Abdel’s brother Karim (Sami Slimane) tosses a Molotov cocktail into the police station.
Karim and his cohorts raid the station for weapons and protective gear (they even remove a safe they couldn’t crack open) and take a joyride in a stolen ambulance to Athena, where they mean to make their stand against the police that will soon encroach on their doorsteps. And even as they arrive, we see some of the inner workings of the young people prepared for the inevitable siege; at one point, Karim chides several of them for fooling around with weapons as if this “war” is merely a game.
The energy radiates off the screen, both the silver one and on my laptop when I rewatched the opening scene this week. It’s a visceral experience, one of the most memorable sequences I’ve seen so far this year outside of the vibrant spectacle that was RRR.
The film clearly set the stakes between two brothers, both of whom want the people responsible for killing their brother to answer for it but who have different visions of what that entails. It highlights several relevant topics already on the forefront (police brutality by the state being among them), and it roots the tragedy that follows in its characters, a move that gives viewers who might not be familiar with some of the film’s French idiosyncrasies something to latch onto.
Why it matters
The opening scene is a technical marvel, and reading about all of the factors and care that went into it makes me appreciate it even more.
If we want films to keep pushing the envelope of what’s possible instead of having movies continue to phone it in, we should, by all means, support those movies by actually watching them.