The camera doesn’t interrupt the movement and finds in the crowd Abdel’s brother Karim (Sami Slimane, a searing presence in his screen debut). His eyes burning with wrath, and his posture impatient, he lights up and throws a Molotov cocktail towards the door, starting a well-planned riot amid a rampaging crowd. Through that—and an overwhelming action sequence of smoke-filled chaos that follows—Karim and the protesters take control of the location as well as a hefty supply of guns, with cinematographer Matias Boucard’s unflinching and agile camera following them to their housing project, Athena: a place these revolutionaries proudly revere above all else, standing tall on its edges.
Truth be told, Surkin’s pulsating score that spreads itself over this sequence (and many other similarly impressive ones thereafter) is big and exhausting. The dynamic between the music and visuals is one that brings to mind Hans Zimmer’s occasional overindulgence when composing for Christopher Nolan—competing against the magnitude of the filmmaker’s already grand images, instead of amplifying them. But apart from that, “Athena”—a Greek tragedy constructed by the son of Costa-Gavras with recognizable hints of “Z”—immensely satisfies as a fast-moving political thriller and urban drama that feels genuinely cinematic, with technical finesse to spare.
Still, the film that essentially follows the late Idir’s three disparate brothers is more emotionally gripping in its rare moments that focus on small and quiet gestures and undercurrents. A realistically rendered (and recited) Islamic funeral prayer comes to mind, one that simmers with pain and familial grudges. Elsewhere, the third brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), gives “Athena” one of its more challenging and narratively tricky storylines, being the sibling who’s found a way to line his pockets in the midst of all the injustice his people are subjected to. Running a drug operation out of Athena, Moktar’s primary interest happens to be his own survival and he’s not afraid to go to dubious lengths for it.