Review: ‘Athena’ (2022), starring Dali Benssalah and Sami Slimane

September 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sami Slimane (center) in “Athena” (Photo by Kourtrajmeuf Kourtrajme/Netflix)

“Athena” (2022)

Directed by Romain Gavras

French and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “Athena” features a cast of Middle Eastern and white characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Civil unrest erupts within hours after a video goes viral of 13-year-old Middle Eastern boy from Paris’ low-income Athena neighborhood appearing to be murdered by white police officers, and the boy’s three older brothers get caught up in the turmoil. 

Culture Audience: “Athena” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a suspenseful, well-acted and visually striking movie that address topics of racism, loyalty and police brutality.

Dali Benssalah in “Athena” (Photo by Kourtrajmeuf Kourtrajme/Netflix)

Visually stunning and emotionally harrowing, “Athena” keeps viewers on edge from beginning to end. This hard-hitting action film takes a brutal look at the effects of race-related violence and the damage it does to everyone. “Athena” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy) also shows in heartbreaking ways how family members can be pitted against each other and loyalties can be tested over important social issues. The movie raises provocative questions about people’s varying definitions of activism and anarchy.

Directed by Romain Gavras, the French film “Athena” might get some comparisons to the 2019 award-winning French film “Les Misérables,” directed and co-written by Ladj Ly. That’s because Ly (along with Gavras and Elias Belkeddar) co-wrote the screenplay for “Athena,” and both movies are about the tensions in Paris between police officers (who are mostly white) and the city’s low-income area residents, who are mostly people of color. These tensions ultimately erupt into violence.

“Les Misérables,” which is much more of a “slow” burn movie than “Athena,” is told from the perspective of a white cop who is new to the low-income district that he has to patrol. The story in “Athena” is told from the perspective of a French military soldier of Middle Eastern heritage. His loyalty is torn between law enforcement and his angry family members, after unidentified white cops are suspected of murdering his unarmed 13-year-old brother in Paris’ disenfranchised Athena neighborhood, where his family lives.

“Athena” begins with this solider—whose name is Abdel (played by Dali Benssalah)—being called away from his regular duties to go to Athena, where civil unrest is brewing over this murder. Abdel (who is in his late 20s or early 30s) is at an outdoor press conference that’s open to the public. At this press conference, a law enforcement offcial is making statements about the investigation into the death of Abdel’s 13-year-old brother Idir.

Just hours earlier, a viral video (filmed by an anonymous person) showed Idir being beaten to death by white men in police uniforms, with the time of death estimated at 12:30 a.m. The murderers have not been identified because their backs are to the camera, and they apparently did not speak during the part of the murder that was caught on video. At this time, the police say that they have no suspects or persons of interest, but numerous members of the public believe that the police aren’t doing enough to investigate officers in their own ranks.

The video of this murder causes outrage, especially since it’s the third case of police brutality in the area in two months. Protests and civil unrest have been growing among the Athena residents. Most of the protestors who take the streets are people of color in their 20s. This background information doesn’t need to be shown as flashbacks, because this civil unrest takes up the entire movie, as the violence escalates.

Abdel has been assigned to be security personnel at the press conference. On the surface, Abdel seems stoic. But inside, he is reeling with grief over Idir’s death. He’s also probably still in shock. Abdel has no idea that his life and the lives of his family members will be devastated some more after this press conference.

Someone who’s at this press conference is Abdel’s younger brother Karim (played by Sami Slimane), who is in his mid-20s. Karim happens to be the leader of the young protesters who commit extreme acts of violence to make statements and further their causes. At the press conference, Karim throws a Molotov cocktail at the police officer who’s talking. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

The rest of “Athena” is about what happens to Abdel and Karim during the subsequent street riots and other violence that happens. The civil unrest spreads to other cities in France, but the movie focuses specifically on Paris’ Athena housing projects/council flats estate as the flashpoint for the chaos. Abdel and Karim have an older brother named Moktar (played by Ouassini Embarek), who is involved in criminal activities, and who doesn’t appear until the last third of the movie.

During the melee, a white police officer in his 20s named Jérôme (played by Anthony Bajon), who is one of the riot-gear cops on the scene, is kidnapped and held hostage by Karim’s group. And during all of this mayhem, Abdel and Karim go to a memorial service for Idir. At this service, the two brothers have the first of multiple confrontations because they fundamentally disagree on how reactions to Idir’s murder should be handled.

“Athena” shows how Abdel and Karim have very different perceptions of themselves and each other. Abdel thinks of himself as the responsible brother who is doing the right thing by following the law. Karim thinks of Abdel as a sellout who is betraying the memory of Idir. Abdel thinks Karim is a ruthless thug who needs to be stopped. Karim thinks of himself as a justified fighter in a war against police brutality and government corruption.

As an example of Karim’s contradictory nature, at one point, he gives a speech to his followers by saying that if anyone tries to fight or kill them, they should do the same to the attackers. However, the movie clearly show that Karim and his group do not act mostly in self-defense. They are the ones who cause the violence, mostly with guns, fireworks and Molotov cocktails.

One of the best technical aspects of “Athena” is the outstanding cinematography by Matias Boucard. The movie gives the impression that many of the scenes are just one tracking shot, and viewers will feel like they’re right in the thick of everything. The pulse-pounding score from Surkin (also known as Gener8ion) ramps up the tension in powerful ways.

In “Athena,” Gavras has a skillful way of creating captivating images that are violent but very artistic. For example, there’s a scene where a group of police officers are in riot gear and form a protective circle for each other, with their shields up for protection, as they are being bombed with fireworks. The way these shields form in a circle look almost like how a group of armadillos would look if they stood in a protective cicle. “Athena” doesn’t exploit the subject matter for the sake of looking “artsy,” but shows in unflinching ways how quickly these matters can get out of control and how people resort to primal instincts to survive.

“Athena” is an ironically titled movie, because Athena is the Greek goddess of battle strategy, and wisdom, but the “Athena” movie is a very male-dominated film that doesn’t give much screen time to any women affected by this turmoil. The mother and sister of the feuding brothers are seen briefly at Idir’s memorial service. The sister is on Karim’s side and fully supports what Karim is doing. And there’s just one woman shown in Karim’s group of insurgents.

The heart of the movie is the volatile and complicated relationship between Abdel and Karim. Benssalah and Slimane give authentic-looking performances that rise to the challenge. Bessalah has the more difficult role, because his Abdel character faces ethical and moral dilemmas that tear him apart emotionally, in ways that single-minded and stubborn Karim does not experience. Karim is unawavering in his beliefs, whereas Abdel has to make hard decisions on where he will place most of his loyalties.

Amid the murders and pandemonium that happen, there’s also a mystery: Who really killed Idir? Stories are swirling in the Athena community and among law enforcement that the murderers of Idir were really white right-wing extremists who impersonated police officers and want to start a race war. Abdel keeps hearing from his law-enforcement colleagues that police officers were not responsible for Idir’s murder. Abdel is not sure what to believe.

Karim doesn’t have any doubts. Karim firmly thinks that cops killed Idir, and Karim blames the Paris police department and all French government officials for Idir’s death. Karim believes in “an eye for an eye” revenge, even if it means that Karim has to make the decision to kill Abdel if Abdel stays loyal to the French government. “Athena” has twists and turns that are more unpredictable than a few of the movie’s other plot developments. Although “Athena” has some minor flaws in these plot developments, the overall movie is very effective in showing how perceptions and attitudes can change, based on the information people have and what they choose to believe.

Netflix released “Athena” in select U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2022. The movie is set to premiere on Netflix on September 23, 2022.

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