Netflixable? A bracing, savage Medieval siege at a French high rise complex named “Athena”

French action auteur Romain Gavras turns a racial flashpoint and riot in a suburban Paris high rise housing complex into a Medieval siege in “Athena,” an epic in unrest painted with a camera.

It’s a film of beautiful images and stunning tracking shots — long takes weaving and hurtling through the chaos of the violence that breaks out when video of police murdering a young man of Algerian heritage there emerges.

Roman candles and stun grenades, smoke and Molotov cocktails streak across the screen as armor-plated shield-bearing riot police evoke memories of “300” as they use a Testudo formation try to break through the blocks of the (fictional) Athena estate.

Gavras, who did the jolting drug-dealing/car-chase thriller “The World is Yours,” knocks us back in our seats from the start. He climaxes a stunning opening with this film’s lone motorized moment — rioters parading on motorbikes and the police van they’ve captured — and wades into the semi-organized mayhem of enraged, untrained but motivated youth scrambling to face the armed force of the police state.

It’s a tale of four brothers from that estate and the powder-keg that France sits on with a permanent, disenfranchised Arabic minority comprised of citizens from its former colonies.

Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is a decorated soldier brought before the cameras by his family, his community and his country. His brother Idir was murdered, apparently by cops, and Abdel’s in uniform as he’s trotted out to demand justice via legal means (a lawyer is with him), and plead for calm and patience as “the system” works this out.

But his ponytailed younger brother Karim (Sami Slimane) is seething in that crowd in front of the police precinct. He tosses the first Molotov cocktail, signaling his track-suited “soldiers” for the assault in which they rout the cops, overrun bystanders and sack the station, gathering weapons — guns and grenades and ammo and gun-safes where more guns are kept.

This assault is the moment “Athena” first bowls us over, and we track in one long take from dismayed Abdel to enraged Karim and charge through this station with the brawling rioters, piling into that stolen van and careening, with their spoils, back to Athena.

Whatever the designers had in mind for this lower-caste/low-cost housing block, they built a highly-defensible fortress, with apartment towers, raised and walled walkways and courtyards, a concrete Bauhaus-inspired living space that would look right at home with catapults and pots of boiling oil on its battlements.

Karim storms through plans for the defense, delegating “harki” (troops) and weapons. Meanwhile, older brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) has his own problems. He’s a drug dealer trying to get his latest score out of the place with his small posse of armed goons. Good luck with that.

Abdel’s efforts to calm troubled waters — from outside — get nowhere because Karim won’t take his calls. Even his hopes, and those of the religious leaders of this Islamic community, to evacuate non-combatants living there to safety seem futile.

And then a young cop (Anthony Bajon) gets separated from the phalanx and captured. Even in his distraught state and confused loyalties, Abdel might be the only man in a position to save him.

Gravras and his fellow screenwriters serve up a story of toxic testosterone, limiting women (the brothers’ mother and sister) to bit players in this tale of dueling patriarchies.

The cops, armed to the teeth, but with non-lethal weapons for the most part, are desperate to retrieve one of their own. Abdel is desperate to get in, talk “some sense” into his brother, save the hostage and defuse the situation. Karim is determined to find “those cops” who murdered his brother, and so caught up in this “war” he has orchestrated that he barely has time to weep for his lost sibling. And Moktar is in a rising rage over what this uprising is doing to powerful position in situ, and his business, a business some corrupt cops have an interest in preserving.

Gavras turns this simple parable of “brothers” into a spectacle that bests every other depiction of such unrest on the screen. The social schism France struggles with every day is laid bare, overwhelming us with the scale of the violence. Angry, disadvantaged and mobilized Islamic youth seem ready to explode, and French society and French policing give them excuses to on a regular basis.

The filmmaker is more interested in the action, the tactics and ground-level combat of this story than the cultures it encapsulates and the frayed society where all this is going on. We visit Idir’s funeral only briefly (Abdel’s mother and aunts wrestle him out of his army uniform and into mourning robes). We glimpse hurt and pleading women and older people amidst all the young men rushing from one set of defenses to the next.

“Athena” becomes a mural of magnificently orchestrated chaos painted over a penny-plain story of brothers in conflict, and one of the most gripping action pictures to come out of France in recent memory, all thanks to Netflix.

Rating: R, violence, profanity

Cast: Dali Benssalah, Sami Slimane, Ouassini Embarek, Anthony Bajon and Alexis Manenti

Credits: Directed by Romain Gavras, scripted by Elias Belkeddar, Romain Gavras and Ladj Ly. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:39

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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