Greek-French filmmaker Romain Gavras’ latest film Athena has premiered on Netflix with a primordial bang. Critics and fans alike are raving about its opening scene, which sets the tone for Gavras’ daredevil take on race, revenge, rebellion, and redemption. Athena takes the viewer on an odyssey through the ghettos of France.
Romain Gavras, son of internationally-acclaimed director Costa Gavras, presented his epic tale on September 2nd at the Venice International Film Festival. The ecstatic reviews were instantaneous, and Romain Gavras’ work applauded not only as one of the best but also most honest and breathtaking new dramas of the year.
Athena: a modern-day Greek tragedy?
Certain themes are universal, and, in Athena, the desire for revenge is one that plays like a quintessential Greek tragedy as evidenced by his choice of the film’s name. Written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar, and Ladj Ly, the film takes place in the banlieues (urban ghettos) of France where inequality is rampant.
In Athena, Gavras presents the French urban ghetto as a paradigm for the social injustice suffered by humankind for millenniums. The director calls this paradigm ‘the myth of the near future.’ However, it touches upon and retells a problematic scenario that has existed in the tenements of Paris since the arrival of the first post-colonial refugees from Algeria, Morocco, the rest of Africa, and the Caribbean.
The story revolves around Karim, Moctar (Oassani Embarek), and Abdel, the brothers of thirteen-year-old Idir, the victim of a racially motivated cop-killing. If Abdel (the well-seasoned actor Dali Benssalah) is the face of justice in the film, then Karim (Sami Slimane) is righteous anger. His wrath is literally and metaphorically a molotov cocktail intended to set fire to the social structures that represent systemic racial oppression and the institutionalization of police brutality. “Family is everything” is the cri de ralliement or call to arms in Athena.
In many ways, Gavras’ work is evocative of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that grew out of African-Americans’ indignation at George Floyd’s senseless death. Like Floyd, Idir becomes symbolic of the needless slaughter of racial and ethnic minorities that still continues today.
Hate breeds hate: Athena’s take on La Haine
With Athena, Gavras follows in the well-trodden footsteps of other French directors, such as Mathieu Kassovitz, who riveted the cinematic world with his 1995 cult hit La Haine. Like Gavras, Kassovitz’s film centers around three friends seeking vengeance against the police officer who, during a riot, brutalized a local teenager named Abdel. Over a day and a night, Kassovitz vividly portrays the racially explosive situation between immigrants and the police in France.
Athena is a film particularly relevant today given the massive protests in Iran over Masha Amini’s death. Amini died after her arrest by Iran’s so-called morality police, an action which sparked riots around the country and had women striking out on the streets. Although not racially motivated, Amini’s senseless death generated an incendiary rage based on the same sense of persecution and injustice highlighted in both Gavras’ and Kassovitz’s films.
In 2013, in Greece, the protests over the death of a Pakistani worker following a racist attack was also the trigger for social reform and change. As stated at that time, however, “Perhaps his murder will bring hope that these attacks will stop. We are protesting for the government to take measures to stop racist attacks.”
Gener8ion: Is there room for beauty in an apocalyptic setting?
Gavras is also presenting another work at the Onassis Foundation in Athens until October 23rd. Gener8ion is also a tour-de-force from the director. It is co-produced by Onassis Culture.
Both Athena and Gener8ion capture the zeitgeist of the 21st century. Both embody the social angst that is so prevalent of this age. The films also provide a framework for understanding the devastation caused by its continued ignorance.
Gener8ion is actually three short films featuring star surfers, freedom fighters, and Charlize Theron. Much like Athena, Gavras describes a ‘story of the future.’ Yet, Gavras’ haunting visions are not meant as criticism. Rather, they are to be taken as a warning. They are a visual image of the insidious violence. His question is if there is actually room for beauty in an apocalyptic setting. That answer, of course, only the audience can give.
The film can be viewed at The Mandra and at the Onassis Stegi until October 23rd. Viewing times are 7 pm to 11 pm from Wednesdays through Sundays at Onassis Stegi. Ticket prices range from €2 to €4. The Mandra also features the film everyday from 12 pm to 9 pm with free admission.