Xenia is a fascinating change-of-pace in Greek cinema in the 21st century. Where Greek New Wave has dominated the country’s festival exports in the last ten years, Panos H. Koutras’ film has had substantial success with a significantly different approach to filming the country. It is less aesthetically and narratively experimental, and far more conventionally paced and realistic but with an arguably more confronting and subversive end result. Xenia examines kinship, cultural vertigo, and sexuality in Greece, through Koutras’ study of two markedly different brothers – Danny and Odysseas – and their manifestations of identity as migrants in modern Greece. As a Greek film, Xenia challenges the country’s status quo through its explicitly political story, its constant refutation of nationalism and homophobia, and its use of a conventional narrative structure to create a realm of accessibility. As a gay film, it’s emancipatory, cathartic and revealing of the deep chasms that continue to exist in Greece’s social psyche. As a cohesive some of the above, it’s one of the stronger works to come out of the country’s often unstable and erratic film industry.
Danny is introduced as an escort mid-way through an erotic encounter with physician, before he cuts it short and informing his client that he has to leave him for a few weeks to take care of some “business” in Athens. Xenia gets rolling quickly, with Danny’s “business” turning out to be finding his way to the city to inform his older brother, Odysseas, of their mother’s death several weeks earlier. From here, the film continues its exposition as it lays out the fundamentals for the rest of the duration. There are three key plots that tie the piece together. First, there’s the one the two men share – the desire to find their biological father and confront him for abandoned them and their mother. Secondly, there’s Danny’s placement as an outsider in Greece amidst the rise of the country’s political right and his resulting treatment. Finally, there’s Odysseas’ experience as a talented singer, struggling to reconcile his talent with his desire for normalcy in a desire to avoid the same hatred that is so frequently flung at his brother throughout the film.
While Danny and Odysseas are both from Crete, their mother is from Albania – which is used as a point for Koutras’ to examine the underclass created by the pervasive prejudice present at the time he was filming Xenia. Koutras doesn’t shy away from the overt political nature of Greece’s social structure in 2008-2012 period – the peak in Golden Dawn’s strength and support. The uncomfortable part of Greek national identity at the time of filming was the sudden support for an explicitly Neo-nazi, anti-immigration (and anti-gay) political group in this. While Golden Dawn’s support has dropped in recent years, the spectre of of a return to the political fringes are an ever-present possibility in the unstable political realm in Greece, and Koutras’ film – with frequent scenes depicting Golden Dawn marches and acts of terror – makes a point of depicting a darker part of Greece’s recent history.
The film is unabashedly a road movie. Running at over two hours, this format can feel a bit excessive, especially as the film navigates the sociopolitical uncertainty of Greece. Jenny, the recently late mother of the two boys, permeates the film; her desire for Odysseas to participate in a Greek talent show prompts a vast amount of arguments between the two men. Even though she’s never on screen, she feels like a protagonist simply due to the extent to which her name is spoken, screamed, cried and exchanged throughout the film.
While Xenia flirts with cliche and predictability, there’s enough strangeness and imagination getting sporadically let in and out of the cage that things never get stale throughout. Again, at two hours, it’s definitely clear that there’s a lot open to be cut here. A shorter version of the film would likely have been a better one. However, in the length, Koutras does give the audience a certain intimacy with the characters. That is, by showing some of their more mundane moments, we’re able to empathise with them more wholly as human beings, rather than characters undergoing a fast-paced series of life changing events; and while it still feels excessive, it never does it to the extent that Xenia as a film is spoiled. It just feels like a movie that could have been more concise and hard-hitting, where the director has clearly decided against such a move – possibly, to his detriment.
“The Unspeakable”, the father of the two boys, has changed his name to Lefteris Christopoulos, operates a club in Thessaloniki at night while being affiliated with the Far Right in the region as a day job. In one of the strongest moves in Xenia, Koutras doesn’t make Christopoulos the endpoint, but merely a means. When the two men find their father, they have a tense encounter with him in which he reveals his true colours and they leave. He subscribes to an ideology that negates the existence of one of his own children, and rather than trying to engage it, they leave him in a move that pushes Koutras’ broader political point: the far-right of Greece – Golden Dawn – don’t need to be part of a dialogue, they simply need to be exposed in their cruelty, which Xenia pulls off remarkably well. The film is subversive and challenging as much as anything coming out of the Greek New Wave scene; but in its negotiations of intimacy with the characters within their social landscape. It builds a deep kinship between the two initially alien sorts of films it delivers itself as and is unashamedly Greek in these expressions. It’s a film that doesn’t compromise to work on an international stage, but largely finds success there through this conviction. This isn’t to say Xenia sits alongside Greece’s strongest films of the last ten years 1 but it does float calmly above the bulk of the country’s cinematic output.