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'Xenia': Cannes Review

Xenia Cannes Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

The Bottom Line

Reality and camp are expertly juxtaposed in this touching if overlong story of two Patty Pravo-crazy teenage brothers.

Venue

Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

Director

Panos H. Koutras

Cast

Kostas Nikouli, Nikos Gelia, Aggelos Papadimitriou, Romanna Lobach

Greek director Panos Koutras sends two Greek-Albanian brothers, played by Kostas Nikouli and Nikos Gelia, on a pan-Hellenic trip in search of their father.

CANNES -- After the death of their Albanian mother, two teenage brothers go in search of their Greek father in Xenia, the latest feature of brash-and-bold Hellenic director Panos H. Koutras (The Attack of the Giant Mousaka, A Woman’s Way).

With the younger of the two siblings a flamboyant 15-year-old gay boy; his broad-shouldered brother, three years his senior, a potential candidate for a Greek Idol-like singing contest and with more bunny-driven surrealism than Donnie Darko, there’s a decidedly campy side to the proceedings that Koutras effectively juxtaposes with the hard-edged realities of contemporary Greece, a beautiful but hostile nation wrecked by the ongoing economic crisis and a place in which xenophobia, racism and homophobia seem to fester freely.

Though the story’s finally too predictable and a little too thin to captivate for the film’s entire two-hours-plus running time, the characters, their chemistry and their plight are compelling, which should ensure a healthy festival life for this Un Certain Regard selection, as well as niche theatrical opportunities, especially for youth- and queer-oriented distributors.

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15-year-old Dany (Kostas Nikouli), with an asymmetrical, bottle-blond haircut and funky clothes, is first seen with a lollipop in his mouth while an older man is about to go down on him, before Dany pumps him for some dough. The startling opening telegraphs what viewers need to know about Daniel, who’s comfortable with being gay but also slightly lost, trying to pretend he’s fine by doing things he’s seen older people do but doesn’t necessarily understand. The character’s clichés -- the hair and attire, the default wisecracking/catty demeanor -- clearly come from the adolescent’s need to find a workable personality, which he’s obviously piecing together from used parts. As if to prove the point, Koutras never uses Dany’s lollipop in a suggestive way but, on the contrary, makes it a marker of the kid’s child-like sweet tooth.

With a white pet rabbit he takes everywhere, the daydreaming Dany leaves Crete for Athens to find his older brother, Odysseus or Ody (Nikos Gelia), so he can tell him in person their mother has died. Together, they travel to Thessaloniki, where their Greek father, who walked out on them ages ago, supposedly lives, hoping they can get his nationality -- a necessity if they want to stay in Greece -- and a share of his rumored wealth.

Along the way, Ody manages to do some singing, including several songs by the siblings’ idol, camp Italian chanteuse Patty Pravo, and Dany gets the boys into trouble when playing with a gun. If many of the story beats of Koutras and regular co-screenwriter Panagiotis Evangelidis’s screenplay are familiar, what makes the material fresh is its constant juxtaposition of realism and an at-times surreal fantasy world into which especially Dany occasionally retreats -- though were singing and dancing are concerned, Ody is just as game as his little brother.

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The title is significant, as Xenia, which can be translated as “hospitality,” refers to both the ancient Greek custom that the current debate over immigrants in Greece (such as these half-Albanian kids) willfully ignores, as well as a hotel chain that’s gone bust and that provides the siblings with an abandoned, half-ruined building to sleep in on their no-budget journey to find their father -- a potent visual metaphor for the state of hospitality in a divided country in tatters.

Though very affable, Gelia can’t quite overcome the contradiction written into the DNA of Ody, who’s both a tough guy and improbably in love with the songs of a 1960s diva. As his kid brother, Nikouli, also a newcomer, is a revelation as Dany, a kid who’s a loveable, confused but well-meaning disaster area, and the couple’s colorful back-and-forths are one of the film’s chief pleasures.

Technically, the film looks and sounds fine despite a checkered production history.

In Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

Production companies: 100% Synthetic Films, Wrong Men, MPM Film, Entre Chien et Loup, Arte France Cinema

Cast: Kostas Nikouli, Nikos Gelia, Aggelos Papadimitriou, Romanna Lobach, Marissa Triandayllidou, Yannis Stankoglou

Director: Panos H. Koutras

Screenwriters: Panos H. Koutras, Panagiotis Evangelidis

Producers: Eleni Kossyfidou, Panos H. Koutras, Alexandra Boussiou

Director of photography: Helene Louvart, Simon Sarketzis

Production designer: Pinelopi Valti

Music: Delaney Blue

Costume designer: Vassilis Barbarigos

Editor: Yorgos Lamprinos

No rating, 128 minutes.