Cannes 2014: Panos H. Koutras’ ‘Xenia’ is the festival’s most hospitable film

With his best and most mature film, Panos H. Koutras (‘The Attack of the Giant Mousaka’, ‘Real Life’, ‘Strella’) is not limited to a loud political cinema, but creates a tender and humanist manifesto. Offering philo – xenia, the historical moment when we need it more than ever.

‘Is anyone here? Is anyone here?’ The anxious cry of Ody (Odysseas) sounds like it’s trying to escape from the plastered windowpanes of the Xenia hotel, where he has found shelter for a night along with his younger brother Danny. In the film, the question is practical. But everything that has come before it, all the things you have sadly identified from your country today, make you imagine the question echoing through the land, over the mountain tops of northwestern Greece, through the valleys with the cheap late-night music halls, over the squares of the big cities where cops and fascists sip on their Frappés, the park benches where immigrants rest, the cardboard boxes of the homeless, over the buzz of your retired parents’ TV set. It echoes all the way to your own couch.

‘Is anyone here? Is anyone here?’ You look around you, then look outside. If you can, answer with sincerity. You… the viewer, the foreigner.

Ody doesn’t want to go by that name anymore. He uses his full Greek name, Odysseas. He lives in Athens and works at an eatery in the city. He’s trying to get his life in order, trying not to remind people of his Albanian background, trying not to provoke.

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In a few days he’ll be eighteen. Danny is his younger brother. He’s an intense and exuberant 16 year-old gay teenager, tightly holding on to his youthfulness and his pet, a white rabbit. Brazenly, he sucks on his lollipops and on older men. Until recently, he’d been living with their self-destructive alcoholic mother in Chania. Their mother was an Albanian musician who twenty years earlier had packed away her diploma from Tirana Odeion, along with her dreams of becoming a singer and thoughts of her country’s despair and made her way to Greece, which was then a kind of 90’s promised land. There she was welcomed by a pimp, who she had two children with and who forced her into a life of prostitution, before abandoning them when the boys were 2 and 6 years old. Danny arrives in Athens to tell his brother that their mother has passed away. Shortly before, she revealed that the “unspeakable”, their father was alive. He has changed his name and is even running for city council with a far-right party in Thessaloniki. His real line of work is “selling protection” to nightclubs. Danny has a plan. They are to go find him, inquire about the past and demand their right to a better future. At the same time Odysseas, who has inherited his mother’s musical talent, wants to revive his and his mother’s dream: to sing their favorite song by Patty Bravo for a popular Greek talent – reality show, which is auditioning in Thessaloniki. To become a Greek star. “Why not? You have every right. We’re half-Greek.”

Panos H. Koutras kicks off the symbolic Odyssey of the two brothers in the center of Athens, which looks like it’s under siege. His camera rolls and wanders melancholic over the city’s impoverishment. He documents the crisis – which is not just a financial one – in an objective and deductive manner. It’s a deeply rooted moral crisis, which found the right circumstances to rear its ugly face:  xenophobia, homophobia, anger and blatant violence towards anything foreign. But Koutras gaze isn’t simply accusatory. At the same time, it looks to the sky. It glides over the city’s terraces and tenderly floats over wide open spaces. How strange that the Acropolis should be standing there as a symbol for misinformed fascists today. The Acropolis, the unshakeable monument of excellent marblework and beauty, a symbol of endurance that is above and beyond all of us.

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‘Xenia’ – the obvious pun is on Greece’s stance towards immigrants and its own citizens – has no intention of becoming a bitter parable. Koutras (and Panagiotis Evangelidis who co-wrote the script) don’t look at Greece as a desperate deadlock from the derelict balconies of the abandoned Xenia hotel in Kozani. They don’t blame the Greeks or consider others less responsible. Evil knows no nationality. Neither does good. The two brothers start their trip on the run, as outcasts, as adventurers. At every stop, their lost humanity, humor and courage is revealed to them and restored. The humanism we carry inside, unmapped, the love, the dreams, our true identities that need no fingerprints, declarations or flag-waving. “We’ll be foreigners anywhere we go, won’t we?” / “Yes, but we’ll feel at home everywhere.”

The two protagonists of ‘Xenia’, the newcomers Kostas Nikouli and Nikos Gelia, were a risk that paid off. They have a chemistry and raw energy, are sincere and convincing. Gelia gives his down to earth character extra dimensions, while Nikouli, in a role that could have easily slipped into caricature, is a creature you can’t take your eyes off of. In smaller parts Yannis Stankoglou and Marissa Triandafyllidou easily get under the skin of the guilty, egotistical nouveau-Greek and provide a sarcastic humorous catharsis (which some viewers may be taken aback by). Last but not least, Aggelos Papadimitriou is the distillation of the paradoxical and hospitable, big fat Greek heart.

Koutras, at his best as a director, frames his scenes grandiosely and with warmth. The firm cinematography by France’s Hélène Louvart and by Simos Sarketzis floods many of the scenes with a dewy sweetness, as if the Greek light was trying to soothe you: better days are ahead. But more than anything, the film soars with its soundtrack: the camp adoration for the mellow Italian ballads of the 70’s, and the glam disco anthems that will have you waving your arms feeling alive when life on earth is rotten and gets you down. And after all is said and done, the director still manages to pull a few rabbits out of his hat! Such are the daring scenes of magical realism which Koutras has employed throughout his career in an endearing and reassuring way. Like the stuffed animals of our childhood years, which we will never stop looking for. If we are lucky, we will find them in movies.

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Yesterday was election day in Greece. We’re in our cinefile bubble at a festival reading about voting results far away. We’re horrified by the thought of returning, of having to face the difficult present and unknown future. Not knowing what our country is. Not sharing a language with its inhabitants. Not knowing if we fit in, if we belong somewhere ideologically, politically and ethnically. Today we left a film theater teary-eyed. It may have had something to do with the realization that, as long as there are films that rediscover the joy of life, and take us back to our cores, that open our eyes and hearts to alternatives and send on us on our way, stumbling  towards the sunset with a song on our lips, we can hope for better days. And we will forever be innocents.

Read more of our Cannes 2014 reviews.