Athena review: War in the suburbs

Romain Gavras’s blistering actioner is a wild ride.

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Director: Romain Gavras
Cert: None
Genre: Action
Starring: Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, Alexis Manenti
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins

This electrifying new film from director Romain Gavras starts as it means to go on: with a riot and fireworks.

Working with co-writers Elias Belkeddar and Ladj Ly — whose 2019 Cannes-conquering Les Miserables followed similarly white-knuckle misadventures of fugazied cops in a banlieue — Athena refashions urban and class conflict to resemble Greek mythology.

It’s something grander in scope and scale than the urban frisson of genre classic La Haine and its immersive, “real-time” design leaves the viewer reeling and scrambling in time

In common with much Grecian tragedy, it’s a family affair, concerning four brothers.


The youngest, we learn at a nervy press conference, has been killed, an apparent victim of police brutality. War hero and middle brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah) appeals for calm. The disaffected local youths, including Abdel’s younger sibling Karim (Sami Slimane) are in no mood to listen. Karim wants answers, more precisely, he wants his brother’s killers.

A Molotov cocktail is lobed, signalling the beginning of 100 minutes of relentless, virtuoso action film-making and death-defying camerawork from Matias Boucard, while Gener8ion’ outsized score translates French rap into choral and operatic swells.

The audacious social and political apocalypse that ensues plays out against the fictionalised suburb of the title, with Évry-Courcouronnes standing in and providing many of the extras. These real-world figures are emblematic of the film’s grand dialectic between heightened, adrenalin-surging drama and observable class and racial tensions. For all the powderkeg politics, there’s not a single moment that could be mistaken for neorealism.

As the riot police move in on the estate, Abdel and Karim’s nogoodnik sibling Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) attempts to shift contraband through enemy lines. But the siege has already begun.

There are three towering performances at the heart of this heightened drama: Benssalah’s conflicted concern is matched by Embarek’s short-fused self-regard. More impressively, there comes a moment when Sami Slimane’s Karim walks through his legion of makeshift guerillas and they fall completely silent. It’s a scene that mirrors that humbling experience of watching him as an actor. He’s a general. Cast him in everything, please.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic