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'Athena' is one of the best things you'll see this year

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There’s a movie on Netflix right now that for some reason the company isn’t even talking about, despite the fact that it’s one of the best things you’ll see this year, and it has an opening that is guaranteed to knock the socks off every single person who sees it.

It's called Athena, and it’s set in a fictional housing development by that name that’s occupied almost entirely by immigrants in Paris. The movie opens on Abdel, a French-Algerian soldier who’s addressing the media at a police station after his 13-year-old brother was killed by unnamed police officers. We pan over the crowd to land on another brother, Karim, who throws a Molotov cocktail and begins a raid of the police station by young men who burn the building and steal a police van, driving it back to Athena, where they barricade the entire complex. They’re deeply angry about the boy’s killing, and too many others like it.

And all of this in one 11-minute inferno of a sequence that’s made to look entirely like one continuous shot, with the camera zooming down corridors and into and out of the moving van. It’s as high-octane a scene as you’re going to find, and somehow, the movie never slows down after that, as we see what happens over the next day or so inside and outside Athena. Sami Slimane, who plays Karim in his first acting role, is simply astonishing, his focused eyes showing the contained rage of years of injustice.

More importantly the movie is not just style without substance. We see complex family relationships and the experience of Muslims in French society, set in a heightened reality that’s almost operatic or Shakespearian in its scope. From my American perspective, it does seem like one final revelation makes the movie take its eye off the ball, but it’s also possible the ball just looks a bit different in France. Regardless, Athena is a sea of flames, literally and metaphorically, and it’s frankly obscene that it’s not on your front page every time you open up Netflix.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.