Focus on Xenia

The brutal crisis that has for several years been lashing Greece full in the face has already inspired a great deal of writing, but it has also seen a new generation of filmmakers emerge – quite radical filmmakers who create rather gloomy works. Nevertheless, their often trangressive boldness pales in comparison to the broad, sparkling imagination of their oldest sibling, Panos H Koutras, who came to fame in 1999 with the outrageous The Attack of the Giant Moussaka, and more firmly established himself with Real Life (2004) and A Woman’s Way [+] (the Berlinale Panorama in 2009). Very much at ease with tragicomedy and not one to shy away from any combination of genres – from fables to hyperrealism, or from focusing on a single human relationship to a vast portrait of society, via euphoric moments of musical comedy and amazing forays into dream worlds and fantasy – the filmmaker allows himself to take every possible liberty in Xenia, revealed at the 67th Cannes Festival, as part of the Un Certain Regard programme. Dealing successfully with some serious topics, with a few welcome touches of frivolity and humour, the film exudes an undeniable charm in the constantly moving wake of its two main characters.

The film is about two brothers. Dany (Kostas Nikouli), a homosexual of nearly 16 years of age, with a head of bleached-blond hair, a baseball cap and a dog collar, who is constantly sucking on lollipops, catches a boat from Crete and arrives back in Athens to announce to his older brother Ody (Nikos Gelia) that their mother is dead. Born in Greece, but of Albanian heritage, the two brothers find themselves on the verge of being deported. Taken in by the butch Ody, who is kind but not overly delighted to have to look after his younger sibling ("I told you you couldn’t come", "Don’t embarrass me", "If you want to stay in Athens, you’re gonna have to calm down"), Dany has his heart set on two ideas. The first is to track down their father (whom they call "The Unspeakable One"), who abandoned them years before and is now apparently living in Thessaloniki, where he is rich and, most importantly, a naturalised Greek citizen. His second obsession is for Ody to take part in the Greek Star reality TV show and sing something by Patty Pravo, an Italian singer from the 1960s and ‘70s, whom their mother (a music-hall performer) worshipped with all her heart, subsequently passing that enthusiasm onto her two children. Between their adventures and misfortunes, travelling across a Greece corrupted by the violence of extreme right-wing fringe groups, and with the help of Tassos, an old family friend (Aggelos Papadimitrou) who manages a nightclub called Le Paradiso, the two brothers set off in search of their “lost dreams”...

Alternating between a fable lulled by a playful spirit and the youthful get-up-and-go of the two heroes, and a raw analysis of the thorny societal issues that are shaking up the political debate in Greece and, indeed, in Europe (nationality and jus soli/jus sanguinis, and the rise in extremist movements masquerading as patriotism), Xenia (a Greek word meaning “hospitality”) is above all a very successful portrait of brotherhood. Following in the footsteps of its two very endearing (and non-professional) lead actors, the film unfurls with a beautiful dramatisation that makes good use of highly suggestive settings (the sea, the forest, the city, the dilapidated hotel, the see-through villa), and the one or two shortcuts that the screenplay takes (a gun that appears just at the right time, for example) do not have any negative impact on the audience’s enjoyment. And just like Dany’s companion, the white rabbit, which undergoes several transformations (including some that are wildly unexpected) in the course of the story, Panos H Koutras’ poetic-realism magic is clearly at work.

Co-produced by Greece, France and Belgium, and finally completed following a real uphill financial battle during post-production, Xenia is being sold internationally by Pyramide, which also handled its release in French cinemas on 18 June.

by Fabien Lemercier