Three years before Athenain 2019, Ladj Ly completed his first work of fiction, Wretched, on the striking image of a teenager, victim of a police blunder, armed with a Molotov cocktail. A swollen face and glare, the boy stands in front of a policeman on the ground, terrified at the idea that his opponent will take action. A quote from Miserables by Victor Hugo came to close the circle: “My friends, remember this, there are no weeds, no bad men. There are only bad growers.” Here below, the police and the inhabitants of the city are tearing each other apart. Up there, power remains blind to pleas. In 2022, Athena, the third feature film by Romain Gavras, could be the spiritual sequel. The two filmmakers who are members of the Kourtrajmé collective share the same anger and a desire to put on the table issues rendered deaf by an oriented treatment of politics and the media.
With the furious look that closed The Miserables, Athena responds with bewildered eyes. Those of a soldier named Abdel (Dali Benssalah), advancing towards a crowd of journalists and citizens to announce the death of his younger brother the day before. Police are suspected of being responsible for the death but their identity remains unknown. The IGPN is leading the investigation. For the other brother of the victim, Karim (lightning Sami Slimane), the cup is full. The answer can only come from revolt. The Molotov cocktail is this time well and truly launched towards the police station. Athena begins with a bewildering ten-minute sequence shot in which Romain Gavras takes the viewer amidst scenes of guerrilla warfare, mortar fire and a CRS van speeding towards the Athena city where Karim and his troops are preparing for the final fight.
Romain Gavras has never advocated a form of subtlety in his cinema. His work is rich in flashy demonstrations, stagings that dream like master paintings and staggering representational reversals (review the always memorable clip of the “Bad Girls” from MIA). His two previous feature films, Our day Will Come in 2010 and The world is yours in 2018 — two titles that now resonate with the history ofAthena —, already showed the desire of the former music video director to find a form of absolute efficiency in the image. This insatiable quest for the perfect shot made his early films imperfect, like a series of ideas and concepts that didn’t always come together as nicely as the director intended.
With Athena, the director hits the mark and displays his ambition in full light: to make a social chronicle that would have the visceral emotion of an ancient tragedy and the mythological power of a peplum. Romain Gavras openly quotes Gladiator by Ridley Scott or Ran of Akira Kurosawa among his references. Difficult to follow such influential films in the history of cinema, but the filmmaker is not intimidated. Because in the opening sequence shot, many others follow, all just as flamboyant and which shed a little more light on the story ofAthena.