After the avant-garde crime comedy “The World Is Yours”, Romain Gavras returns with the thriller “Athena”. Produced by Paris-based Iconoclast for Netflix, the ambitious €15 million ($15 million) film is set after the tragic murder of a child. A leaked video showing the boy as a victim of police brutality goes viral and ignites an all-out war in an imaginary community called Athena. It is the first French film that Netflix is presenting in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
“Athena” tells the story of the boy’s three brothers, who are responding to the tragedy in different ways. French star Dali Benssalah (“Les Sauvages,” “No Time to Die”) plays the older brother, Abdel, a French soldier. Faced with an impossible moral dilemma, Abdel is called from the front lines to help defuse the all-out war unleashed by his younger brother Karim (Sami Slimane), who wants revenge. Athena becomes the backdrop for a tragedy for both the family and their entire community. The film’s star cast also includes Ouassini Embarek, Anthony Bajon and Alexis Manenti.
It’s a passion project for Gavras, who co-wrote the script with Ladj Ly (“Les Miserables”) and Elias Beldeddar, as well as executive producing.
Gavras said Variety that he and Ly wanted to tell a story about “a divided brotherhood whose grief will tear their community and the rest of the nation apart.” Through this intimate account, Gavras said he wanted the film to expose the insidious mechanism of a civil war, “the lies that will push people to get involved in it,” the Greek-born director said, where he says the “ravages of the civil war can still be felt.”
The name of the community, Athena, refers to the Greek tragic elements of the story and means “war and wisdom”. “I like to use images and symbols to tell stories and Greek tragedies are full of symbols and also have a unit of time: Sophocles would say that tragedy begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.”
“Athena” was shot chronologically with long sequences and plunges viewers into a downward spiral of violence that leads to chaos.
Benssalah, who gives a breakthrough performance in the film, said it is the most emotionally and physically demanding role of her career.
“We had so many long sequences to rehearse and we did so many takes that there weren’t any small scenes, but that’s what I also love, as an actor, to push myself beyond my comfort zone, my limits and see where it takes me. ,” said Benssalah, who previously starred in Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Les Sauvages.”
He said the movie was shot mostly at night, leaving him with very little time to live outside of filming. “To maintain the military mentality of my character, I worked out every day before going on set, it gave me the inner strength of Abdel,” added Benssalah.
Although the film’s backdrop is imaginary, it was filmed in a real suburb, in Évry-Courcouronnes, where Gavras and his team were able to cast not only extras, but many small roles as well. “90% of our cast is made up of people from the neighborhood, we pretty much get everyone involved, from the cast to the catering to the set design,” said the director, whose music video career includes work for Kanye West, MIA and Justice. He also co-founded the Kourtrajmé film school with fellow director Kim Chapiron.
He said that the film was thoroughly rehearsed for two months before the start of filming, which meant that by the time they began filming they were already a family. “It was like the Cinecitta in Evry,” joked Gavras.
The director explained that the entire community saw the film’s story unfold in real time and lived through it. “We create a group dynamic within our team and the neighborhood. It was like ‘Dogville’ in Evry,” he added with a laugh.
With his background as a visual artist, Gavras treated the form of the film as carefully as the rest. “We created a choreography with references linked to opera and artists like Delacroix. In France, we have this great tradition of handheld cinema verité, but I’m more interested in exploring imagery and symbolism in my films,” Garvas said.
The film also stands out from most movies about suburban youth or police brutality because it implicates the role of the far right in fueling tensions.
“It’s a movie that’s somewhere between fact and fiction, it’s a big, bright, colorful movie about something that could happen or has already happened,” Benssalah said, adding that the subtext of the movie is about what makes the world turns today, from the extreme right to the media.
“Athena” was produced by Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Jean Duhamel and Nicolas Lhermitte at Iconoclast. It will premiere on Netflix on September 23.