Xenia (2014), by Greek director Panos H. Koutras, follows the journey of two previously estranged, teenage brothers, Dany and Odysseas (nicknamed Ody), on the search for their father after the sudden death of their alcoholic mother. During the film, the boys struggle with questions of identity, as they (as well as the actual actors who portray them) are half-Albanian and half-Greek. The film brings into context the current cultural situation in Greece where right-wing fascists are increasingly gaining power and Greek citizenship is traditionally distinguished by blood and not land, thus stressing the importance for the two boys to find their Greek father and gain official citizenship. Dany is also gay and flamboyant, which marks him out even more in society, as he faces rejection and violence from both pure-Greek fascists and angry Albanian youths. The human struggle to belong is also explored via the secondary plot where Ody is persuaded by his brother to participate in the Greek version of American Idol as Dany is convinced that, by winning, they will receive full recognition as Greeks.
The brothers are polar opposites: The elder Ody is responsible, serious, dark-haired, and looking to live an unassuming life. The younger Dany is impetuous, loud, colourful, rebellious, and brimming with youth and sexuality. The former is a survivor, keeping the pair alive through their quest, and the latter a fighter, keeping them moving forward. But the director is also careful to show their likenesses too, as perfectly exemplified by one shot of the brothers walking together, Ody with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and Dany with a lollipop stick protruding from his, displaying a mirroring of vices but also a gap in levels of maturity. The two boys also share a love for dance and music, particularly that of diva Patty Pravo, instilled by their mother. As the director elucidated at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival screening Q&A, Italian pop music has transcended national borders in Europe as well as generational ones, making it an apt soundtrack for the film’s message of acceptance and inclusion.
Additionally, the film’s ironic title, Xenia, refers to an ancient Greek cult of kindness toward strangers. It is also the name of a real-life line of luxury hotels that went bankrupt during the recent economic collapse in Greece. One of these ruined hotels acts as a safe haven for the brothers after they run away from some Albanian youths whom Dany fired a gun towards after they harass him. It is at this point in the film that Ody celebrates his 18th birthday by raucously drinking and dancing in the abandoned building with his brother, and Dany has a startling break from his childhood mindset, as symbolized by the stuffed white rabbit that had he carried throughout the film so far, which he “kills” and buries. The animal imagery that signifies Dany’s innocence and child-like imagination recurs in dream-like sequences many times in the film and the most prominent ones of the white rabbit immediately brings to mind the surreality of Alice in Wonderland and of Donnie Darko. Other hallucinations reveal Dany’s adoration of Patty Pravo and also his relationship to his absent father with whom his only memory is that of falling asleep as an infant on a man’s hairy chest.
The climax of the film finds Dany holding up a family at gunpoint after he has tracked down the patriarch, an affluent right-wing politician, who is potentially his father, while at the same time Ody nervously auditions for the singing competition. The shocking but also hilarious events won’t be revealed here but overall, Xenia is a fascinating film with both humour and pathos, showcasing the beauty and flaws of current-day Greece, with riveting young actors and photogenic scenery to boot.
Rating: 4 out of 5 lollipop sticks.