In the first ten minutes itself, “Athena” establishes a sense of urgency. The French suburbs went into a state of unrest when a 13-year-old boy lost his life due to police brutality. “Athena” is a politically charged film with a family drama at its core. The three brothers of the deceased had different worldviews. Abdel was a French soldier who had returned from his service in Mali. He continued to believe in the justice system and hoped that the police would punish those responsible for Idir’s death. Karim was the rebellious teenage brother who had lost his faith in authority. He instead formed a rebel army to force the police to take action. Moktar was the stepbrother who was not bothered by the incident. He only cared about his drug business which was affected by the unrest in the Athena estate. With long takes, Romain Gavras sets the pulse of the film. A loss resulting from racism cannot be dealt with calmly, but can “an eye for an eye” be the solution? In an interview with “The Guardian,” Romain Gavras admits that his film is pessimistic. There is a sense of hopelessness in the crumbling world of “Athena.”
In the first eleven-minute-long take, Abdel demands police action, whereas his brother, Karim, lights a Molotov cocktail and disrupts the public gathering. The rebel army, with their faces covered, entered the police station and grabbed all the weapons they could lay their hands on. With fireworks and Molotov cocktails, the gang was able to instill fear amongst the police and returned to their estate, sloganeering their war cry “Athena.” Athena was the name of the estate inhabited by immigrants. The young blood wanted revenge and action at any cost. They were unafraid of repercussions. This was the time for the rebels to rise, and the war cry screamed in unison was intoxicating. Karim drifted around the estate, delivering instructions to his team. Even before he could grieve over the death of his little brother, Karim had taken over the challenge of leading an army. With sad eyes and an exhausted body, Karim continued to fight. He believed that their uprising would bring justice to his brother.
Abdel helped the elderly and those against the violence evacuate. Many blamed his family for the unrest, but Abdel kept his calm and focused on the evacuation. He hurried to find his mother in their apartment and was forced to attend a prayer service for his brother. As the violence escalated, he instructed everyone to leave the premises. Amidst the crowd, Abdel found his mother. She asked him to take care of Karim since he was emotionally weak. Abdel had the responsibility of protecting his brother, stopping the violence, and seeking justice for Idir.
Karim had injured his hands, but the physical pain was nothing compared to what he was going through emotionally. He looks at his little brother’s picture in his apartment, and for the first time, we see him break down. But his sadness was soon overpowered by rage, and he climbed out of his apartment and attacked the police. While the two brothers were dealing with their share of troubles, Moktar was digging a hole to leave Athena. He contacted policemen who were on good terms with him and hoped for them to rescue him. He knew that either way, his business would be affected as long as he was inside the Athena estate. Karim realized that they had to come up with a better strategy as disruption alone would not bring justice. He planned to get hold of a policeman and use him to pressure the authorities. Karim and the raging rioters were growing impatient. They needed an answer, they needed the names of the perpetrators, and they were ready to take extreme measures to find them.
Amidst the fire and smoke, a policeman is left behind at the Athena estate. Jerome was anxious from the moment he was traveling to the riot site. He tried to get rid of the nail paint that his four-year-old had lovingly applied. In the bleakness of the situation, the colorful nails were a reminder of a happier time spent with his family. After trapping the policeman, the rioters punished him. The police were trying to get intel from Abdel. Since he was on the side of law and order, they believed he could help them enter the estate and control the situation. Even though Abdel did not believe in Karim’s method, he knew that the police would enter and shoot the rioters. He could not risk the life of his brother. He decided to enter the estate and convince Karim to stop the fight.
He found Jerome and was about to escape with him when Karim found them. He embraced Karim and asked him to accompany him to a safer place. He explained that the war would only result in destruction and that they would never get back their brother no matter what. But Karim was not convinced. He called Abdel a traitor and a puppet of the authorities. He was a shame to their community. Abdel walked off with Jerome, and soon Karim and his men attacked the two, but they managed to escape to Moktar’s place. Moktar agreed to help the two. He realized that by saving the policeman, he would be able to leave Athena easily. He called his contacts in the police force and asked them to rescue Jerome. Karim decided to speak up even if it resulted in the deaths of his brothers. With a Molotov in his hand, he tried to blackmail them into handing over Jerome. Moktar informed Abdel that the police were on the way, but Abdel was worried that they might injure Karim in the process. Moktar assured him that the policemen would not mess with him, but, as it turned out, the police force lined up and shot Karim when he was about to charge them with Molotov. They did not enter the building to save Jerome. It all seemed to be a plan to kill the leader.
Abdel lost control over his emotions. He punched Moktar to death and decided to end the war that his brother had started. He had lost his faith in law and order, and his situation compelled him to fight for the cause and lead the rioters. He negotiated with the police force to get the names of the perpetrators in return for Jerome’s safety. The police informed him that it was not the policemen who had murdered Karim but an anti-crime squad group who tried to pull off an intervention. It might have been Moktar who contacted the anti-crime squad, or the policemen he contacted could have informed the group as well. Abdel refused to listen to any explanation. He wanted the names of those responsible for the death of Idir. The police officer confirmed that they were not responsible for his death; a few right-wing extremists had acted out while wearing police uniforms. They did not yet have the names of the criminals.
Abdel was beyond reason now. He did not care about the facts. He wanted justice, and he wanted it soon. He decided to use Sebastien for their cause. The man seemed to be a retired bomber who took the opportunity at hand and decided to use all the gas cylinders present in the estate to bomb down the property. The situation had escalated beyond Abdel’s control. The rioters were alarmed by Sebastien’s madness and decided to leave the premises and surrender themselves to the police. Jerome joined the rioters and left the estate. He was in a state of numbness as he surrendered himself to the police. Abdel had lost all his brothers; he had lost the will to fight for his survival. Without his family, the war no longer made any sense. The hope for justice was long gone. He rested in a room while the news on television stated that a civil war had started in France. He waited for his death as the dust from the building covered his body. As the camera moves further away from Abdel and the building, we witness the building crumbling down as a result of a series of cylinder bursts.
In the end, “Athena” is about loss and the lack of hope in the post-modern world. Karim’s rebellion army was fighting for visibility and justice for those who lost their lives as a result of anti-Muslim racism. The thrill of forming their army and unifying for a cause was what drove them, but, in the end, it all collapsed. We are living in a time when the world does not stop, even when countries are at war. Therefore, the ending seemed appropriate. The death of Idir would probably be forgotten and all that would remain is anger and hatred. Sebastien taking over control symbolizes how hate mongers join in a cause with no intention of ever resolving it. Their motto is to spread hate and cause destruction.
France has been in the news for racist activities several times. The rise of right-wing extremism has made the condition even worse. The fear of immigrants taking over the country and disrupting French culture is what led to targeted attacks and harassment. “Athena” brings forth the immigrant ghettos, where the elderly were against attacking the police, knowing that they would lose the livelihood they had built after years of hard work, but the youth refused to bow down and demanded action. The discussion of “Us” versus “Them” is incorporated into the film in the form of a television debate. It is not just the visuals that are captivating in “Athena” but also the background score that combines to form a riveting watch.
“Athena” is a 2022 Drama Thriller film directed by Romain Gavras.
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