Romain Gavras’s “Athena” is a thriller that follows his edgy crime comedy “The World Is Yours.” The ambitious $15 million film, produced in Paris by Iconoclast for Netflix, follows the events that occur after a little kid’s terrible death.
In the made-up city of Athena, a battle breaks out after a video of the youngster allegedly being a victim of police abuse is published online. The film is the first French feature that Netflix has entered into competition at the Venice Film Festival.
The three brothers and sisters of the deceased youngster are the focus of “Athena,” which explores their varying reactions to the tragedy. In the film, French actor Dali Benssalah (“Les Sauvages,” “No Time to Die”) plays Abdel, the older brother and French soldier.
Abdel, who has been called back from the front lines to help defuse the all-out conflict started by his brother Karim (Sami Slimane), faces an impossible moral dilemma. The city of Athena serves as a tragic backdrop for the family and the town. Additionally, the picture features the talents of Ouassini Embarek, Anthony Bajon and Alexis Manenti.
It’s a labor of love for Gavras, who also served as an executive producer and co-wrote the script alongside Ladj Ly (“Les Miserables”) and Elias Beldeddar. Gavras told Variety that he and Ly wanted to tell a story about “a divided brotherhood whose pain will tear apart their community and the rest of the nation.”
Gavras, a Greek director born in a country where the “ravages of the civil war can still be felt,” says he intended to highlight the insidious mechanism of civil war through the film’s intimate story.
The community is called Athena, which means “war and wisdom,” alluding to the Greek tragedy components of the plot. “I like to use images and symbols to tell stories and Greek tragedies are filled with symbols and also have a time unit — Sophocles would say that the tragedy begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.”
Shot in a linear fashion using extended takes, “Athena” immerses spectators in a descending spiral of violence and chaos. In the film, Benssalah gives a career-defining performance. He has remarked this is the most emotionally and physically demanding role he has ever had.
“We had so many long sequences to rehearse and we did so many takes that there were no small scenes, but that’s what I love too, as an actor to push myself beyond my comfort zone, my limits and see where it leads me,” said Benssalah, who previously starred in Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Les Sauvages.”
He claimed he had little free time because of the film’s late-night shooting schedule. “To keep up with the military mindset of my character I exercised every day before going on set, it gave me the inner strength of Abdel,” added Benssalah.
Gavras and his crew could cast not only extras but also numerous lesser roles in a genuine suburb, in Évry-Courcouronnes, even if the film’s setting is entirely fictional. The director, who has worked on music videos for Kanye West, M.I.A. and Justice said, “90% of our cast are people from the neighborhood. We almost got everyone involved, from the cast to the catering to the set design.”
In addition, he and fellow director Kim Chapiron formed the film school Kourtrajmé. He claimed they had spent the two months before principal photography forming a tight-knit family through extensive rehearsals for the film. “It was like the Cinecitta in Evry,” quipped Gavras.
The director stated that everyone in the town witnessed the events depicted onscreen and experienced them firsthand. Together my staff and I fostered a strong community spirit throughout our area. In his humorous afterthought, he compared it to the TV show “Dogville” set on the fictional planet Evry.
Gavras, an accomplished visual artist gave equal consideration to the film’s structure as he did to its content. “We created choreography with references tied to opera and artists like Delacroix. In France, we have this big tradition of cinema verité with handheld camera, but I’m more interested in exploring images and symbolism in my films,” said Garvas.
In addition to being different from other movies about suburban teenagers or police violence, the movie’s implied role of the extreme right in fanning tensions also set it apart.
“It’s a film that’s between reality and fiction, it’s a big, bright and colorful film about something that could happen, or may have already happen,” said Benssalah, adding that the film’s subtext alludes to what makes the world turn today, from the far right to the media.
Production of “Athena” was handled by Iconoclast Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Jean Duhamel and Nicolas Lhermitte. The premiere will take place on September 23 on Netflix.
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