Of all the days one could receive—and follow through on—the recommendation of a film about the aftermath of police brutality in France, it had to be Bastille day, during a riot year, no less. Though all of that was pure coincidence (recognizing the irony, I did take up the recommendation immediately on purpose) it had be no other way. Leave it to the French, then, to revert to self-incrimination on the most symbolic date on their calendar as their failed multiculturalism experiment stares back from the mirror. And while on the subject of civil unrest, one must admit protests are as French a pastime as philandery, with the demarcation lines, more or less, a demographical (generational?) feature of the participant. Traditionalists, in their heyday, were more given to taking up a mistress while the younger, more egalitarian demographic are readier to embrace a revolutionary cause. And this revolutionary sentiment is more French than baguettes, handrolled cigarettes and body odor.
But it seems a question of the philosophizing involved behind the act rather than the act itself as, when the brownies do it, it’s a riot, and civil disobedience, by everyone else. Which brings us to Athena, the titular banlieue where the ethnocultural fallout disperses. But if this French characteristic made the timing ironic, it can—and did—make the film credible in comparison to American depictions of the same subject matter, so it cuts both ways, I suppose. French films on police brutality, that I am aware of, are fictionalized tales of art imitating life whereas American counterparts—Fruitvale Station (2012) comes to mind—tend to favor retellings of true events. Without delving deeper into causes behind these preferences than already shown, one thing is clear. One mindset relishes the opportunity for discourse through art while another seemingly uses the cinematic platform to eulogize or humanize one side over another, as if the sentencing outcome left much to be desired. One thing is certain, one would have to go back a quarter-century for a mold-breaking entry from America cinema; the events depicted in Do The Right Thing nearly entirely precede the triggering incident invoking in the title.
Not the first of its kind, as Athena might rightly garner justified similarity to prior works on the same subject (Mathieu Kassovitz’ La Haine), the film’s style could also be likened to a seminal work in an entirely different genre. City of God (2002), though a sprawling coming-of-age gangster epic, seems to have lent considerable stylistic influence in how Athena was shot, mainly the kinetic energy employed in both films. Take Athena‘s opening passages, for brevity’s sake, as one prime example. It takes place outside a police station before a crowd gathering for a public statement. The decorated soldier/brother of the slain teenager is brought on to placate the seething mob. Anger ignites (literally and by the hands of another brother) immediately and the precinct is stormed, an arms cache is stolen and brought back to the housing complex in one long take clocking over ten minutes of action. It’s a fluid display of virtuosity that, for better or worse, leaves no time to ponder any profound statements the filmmaker might have on the topics of justice, crimes and punishments, and public order.
The film has plenty more opportunities to state its position but eschews that for a fly-on-the-wall, quasi-documentarian mode of capture. The scant social commentary did not go unnoticed among citrics’ circles but one could forgive director Romain Gavras for foregoing that approach for one more focused on archetypical characterizations. When a quartet of brothers—each from (conveniently) disparate walks of life—can’t get along during this ordeal, what does that say about reconciliation? Not just for this one family, but France as a whole? Perhaps less is more, here, in Gavras’ eyes, as one brother threw the molotov cocktail that sparked disorder, another placates the crowd, and a third, engaged in the arms trade, wants nothing to do with the justice protestors are demanding (to deliver the cops who killed their little brother). This rag-tag trio of brothers is not accidentally divergent; they affirm the allegorical extremes forming Gavras’ Greek tragedy. Moreover their forced dissimilarities impress the apogee of the individual breaking points.
Gavras dials up the tensions to improbable extremes and stretches the limits of believability but again it’s all in service of dramatization and, ultimately, in line with the established intent of Athena not being a profound text on multiculturalism or France’s ‘problem,’ to begin with. This isn’t to say the film magically becomes genuine (or superior) through comparison to American counterparts. But it does leave room for debate, mainly inside the gray areas where it does not condone the disaffected minority nor condemn the authority tasked with quelling intermittent uprisings. Instead of taking a side—the aforementioned La Haine vs A.C.A.B. All Cops Are Bastards (2012)—it merely depicts and plays with the escalation of narrative possibilities. Strangely, this makes the end product both memorable and forgettable all at once as it inhabits a peculiar twilight zone when critiqued. A film like Athena can easily merit a spot in the decade’s best list, be overlooked among this year’s best, and still be none the worse for it, all because of raw emotional power triumphing over a watertight storyline.
Sometimes rowdy, sometimes pouty.