Guerilla Warfare and Music Videos: The Success of “Athena”



Sami Slimane stars in “Athena,” a French language film directed by Romain Gavras.

When you think of maximalist visual styles in filmmaking, you usually think of films by directors with backgrounds in music videos, like Tony Scott, Michael Bay and Antoine Fuqua. The maximalism is often so loud that the political message of the movie gets lost. The sheer volume of their aesthetics often overpowers anything else. Although their films might be reclaimed politically later, such as Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu,” these concerns are seldom on the minds of filmmakers producing or critics interpreting the works. These things are not true with “Athena.”

“Athena” is the latest film from French director Romain Gavras. It is only his third feature after nearly a decade directing advertisements and music videos. The film itself is set in the titular housing project of Athena and follows three brothers after their fourth sibling was murdered in an act of police brutality. The first brother is Abdel, a decorated French soldier who fought for the French in former colonies such as Algeria and Mali. The second brother is Karim, a youth leader in the banlieue who starts a campaign of guerilla warfare against the police. The third sibling is a drug dealer known as Moktar, who is more concerned with hiding his stash from the impending police raids than assisting either of his brothers. 

Just as Gavras’ filmic background helps contextualize the aesthetics of the film, which feature some of the most visually spectacular sequences in recent memory, his familial background situates the politics. His father was Costa-Gavras, a Greek filmmaker who made films such as “Z” and “Missing.” Costa-Gavras was deeply concerned with post-imperialism and the imprint it has left on both European and countries from the Global South. Likewise, his wife Michele Ray-Gavras wrote extensively about French involvement in Vietnam leading up to the Vietnam War. Both of their political projects are apparent in their son’s film.

Perhaps the key to deciphering this side of “Athena” is the character of Abdel. Although he is the son of immigrants, he is widely viewed as a class traitor for much of the film due to his military experience in Mali. Karim despises the fact that Abdel refuses to take up arms and fight the police while Moktar constantly urges Abdel to protect his own skin above anything else. Even after the third act turn, where Abdel changes significantly both as a character and narrative force, the audience is left pondering what to make of his choices. Has Abdel betrayed those around him, or is his passivity justified? 

Part of “Athena’s” genius is its refusal to editorialize. The film presents these moral dilemmas in blunt ways and leaves it up to the viewer to decipher them. I cannot help but think of another French film, the 1966 picture “The Battle of Algiers,” which presents the guerilla battles between Algerian rebels and French colonial soldiers with a frankness mostly associated with documentaries. Just like “Athena,” “The Battle of Algiers” is undoubtedly anti-colonialist and anti-authoritarian in its politics, but it does not paint everything in black and white. “The Battle of Algiers” does this with an almost affectless style, while “Athena” is extravagant in its style and shows the visceral allure of revolution. Even though it presents revolution in a far more stylized way than “The Battle of the Algiers,” “Athena” is still blunt with its characters and their choices. It does not shy away from the morally difficult scenarios that arise. The convictions of “Athena” are apparent, but that does not mean they are pretty.

Setting aside ideology, Gavras proves himself as an exceptionally talented stylist with this film. The opening of the film is an 11 minute unbroken take of Karim and his comrades stealing a police van and includes everything from an explosion to a speech to literal fireworks. More impressively, “Athena” keeps at this titanic pace for the entirety of its runtime. 

A critique might be that this aesthetic approach dulls the senses through inundation instead of invigorating them. I would disagree. Gavras’ almost excessive style shows the seductive side of revolution, the part driven by desire that can lead to liberation but also downfall. When we follow the youths fighting the police, the feeling of excitement is almost unavoidable before Gavras crashes down to reality and shows the brutality of the situation. This style, which simultaneously attracts but also repulses, might be why the film has had a lukewarm reception from general audiences.

“Athena’s”  release may have hurt its reception as well. It went straight to Netflix with very limited theatrical exposure. So many of the film’s visuals are manicured for the big screen, and the experience of watching “Athena” in that environment would have elevated both the medium and the message. Furthermore, the fact that it was buried under a heap of Netflix originals only adds to the tragedy when such prescient films are in short supply. 

Perhaps in the future, “Athena” will gain traction. Historically, films of similar ambition have been pushed to the side only to be revived later. Romain Gavras proves himself as both a craftsman and a commentator, following in his father’s footsteps of making politically charged art that pries into issues both past and present. In an age where a lot of films are defined by either didacticism or timidity, “Athena” stands out.