(director/writer: Romain Gavras; screenwriters: Ladj Ly/Elias Belkeddar; cinematographer: Matias Boucard; editor: Benjamin Weill; music: Surkin/Gener8ion; cast:  Dali Benssalah (Abdel), Ouassini Embarek (Moktar), Sami Slimane (Karim), Alexis Manenti (Sébastien), Anthony Bajon (Jerome), Karim Lasmi (Imam), Mohamed Amri (Idir), Birane Ba (The Negotiator); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ladj Ly/Mourad Belkeddar; Netflix; 2022-France-in French with English subtitles)

“Great as a visual spectacle.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The French director-writer Romain Gavras (“Our Day Will Come”/”The World is Yours”) is the son of the renown Greek director of Z (1969), Costa-Gavras. His political action film, titled after the Greek goddess of war, is a fictional narrative that shows one night of rioting in Paris over social grievances that has brother fighting brother. It results in a French council estate (a housing project) set ablaze. Other than being a great technical achievement (a 15-minute riot sequence is done in one tracking shot), showing battlefield scenes that are greatly choreographed and
being great as a visual spectacle, but it turns quickly into a violent film where violence is the thing (there’s throughout non-stop violence).

Gavras co-writes the uneven script with Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar.

Its opening scene is powerfully staged (the film’s highlight) as a peaceful street demonstration that takes place after a police press conference suddenly gets out of control (whereby angry residents react violently after it goes viral that a policeman has savagely beaten the Algerian immigrant 13-year-old Idir (Mohamed Amri
) and the mob reacts to the police brutality). It results in a housing project destroyed. From there on, the film’s energy dissipates, as contrivances rule the dramatics, and the one-dimensional characters bring about a stifling air of evil banality. Thereby the social issue complaints just raised, legit or not, lose their sense of urgency or merit.

The scenes make no compromises over their brutality, as the street battles are non-stop and continue in waves. You can almost smell the tear gas or feel it as it gets in someone’s eyes. 

It looks like a documentary, as the action looks so real-life and what it has to say politically about white-black relations seems vital to modern France.

Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is a police officer who is upset over his younger brother Idril’s (shown only in a photo) death from the police beating and he acts as peacemaker between the cops and the protesters, who are led by his raging mad other young brother Karim (Sami Slimane), who is stirring up the crowd to get the police to reveal the killer or else. When they don’t, Karim begins the riot by hurling a Molotov cocktail into the line of police defenders. Meanwhile, the brother’s well-connected other brother, a local drug dealer, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), worries only about safeguarding his drugs during the riot.

When the rioters abduct the policeman (Anthony Bajon), they threaten him with harm unless the police reveal the names of Idir’s killers. They also bring in a mastermind (Alexis Manenti) to run the violent protest.

The film leaves us asking if the only way to get the system to change its racism and brutality is through violence, and by not trusting its viewers to answer it for themselves, it makes a revealing statement. It also shows how even in the same family, brothers can share different ideologies and ways to respond to tragedies.

It played at the Venice Film Festival.

Venice Film Festival: Athena (2022)

REVIEWED ON 12/5/2022  GRADE: B-