The word “Xenia” refers to the Greek tradition of generous hospitality toward strangers – an appropriate title, then, for a film that gladly accommodates all manner of curiosities, from giant talking rabbits to chest-rug dream sequences to a cameo from venerable Italian pop diva Patty Pravo. Seemingly drawing equal inspiration from Gregg Araki, early Almodovar and the Eurovision Song Contest, writer-helmer Panos H. Koutras’ fourth feature follows a gay Cretan teen and his golden-voiced older brother as they seek their future (and their estranged father) in Greece. Brashly uneven and wildly overlong, this comedy of brotherly love and outsider acceptance nonetheless boasts a spirited, audience-pleasing core; with some strict cutting, “Xenia” should find numerous festivals and queer-friendly distributors more than hospitable.
Warmly received by Cannes crowds following its premiere in the Un Certain Regard strand — where frisky light relief is generally a rare commodity — “Xenia” represents a sparkier side of its national cinema to the more severe output of the so-called Greek new wave, much favored by international festival programmers in recent years. Which is not to say the pic isn’t subversive in its own daffy way: In a country where economic downturn, as in much of the European Union, has assisted the rise of far-right politics, Koutras’ forthright celebration of homosexuality, advocation of immigrant rights and rejection of patriarchy collectively make a neon-bright statement. It is perhaps that sense of social import that has emboldened this otherwise slight work into a testing two-hour-plus running time; Koutras’ comedy would be no less pointed, and more consistently funny, at 90 minutes.
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The proceedings open in cheerfully in-your-face fashion, with 15-year-old Dany (confident newcomer Kostas Nikouli) being orally pleasured by a significantly older man — an act that raises less concern in itself than the boy’s affectedly disaffected response to it. Flamboyantly styled, complete with pierced septum and bleached boy-band haircut, Dany wears his sexuality very much on his sleeve — or he would, if his distressed denim vest had sleeves in the first place. That makes him heedlessly vulnerable to bullying and exploitation, all the more so in the immediate wake of his Albanian mother’s death. With only his pet bunny Dido for company, Dany makes the decision to leave Crete for Athens, where his older brother Odysseas (model-handsome Nikos Gelia) has made a modest life for himself.
The brothers’ residential situation in Greece is legally tenuous, though Dany has a plan. Together, they’ll journey to Thessaloniki to reunite with the allegedly wealthy Greek father who abandoned them as tots, while Odysseas, a gifted aspiring singer, can audition for a popular television talent show along the lines of “American Idol.” It’s a slender road-movie premise, its drama sporadically heightened by Dany’s ill-advised decision to pack a gun. The resulting farce is often shrill and overextended, but it’s the conflicted, mutually protective fraternal bond at the narrative’s center that keeps things emotionally engaging, even as the outcome of their attempted family reunion seems obvious from the outset.
Aided by the punchy color palette of the production and costume design, splashily showcased in the vibrant lensing of French d.p. Helene Louvart (also the eyes behind Alice Rohrwacher’s Cannes competish entry “The Wonders”), Koutras articulates Dany’s mental instability with a vivid fantasy life. His flights of fancy range from the “Donnie Darko”-style inflation of Dido into a cottontail of colossal proportions to one remarkable image of the grass beneath him morphing into a vast, whorl-haired man’s torso. The film finds equally arresting imagery in the real world, however: The abandoned concrete shell of a hotel (graced with the rusted logo of Greece’s Xenia hospitality chain) that shelters the brothers for a time is poignantly typical of the infrastructural scars left on the landscape by financial crisis.
As is the director’s usual preference, the ensemble mixes established character actors with non-professional discoveries – principally, the two young leads, found via a year-long casting and rehearsal process. Both actors hold the screen with disarming ease; any false or overplayed notes in either performance could be addressed in a more disciplined edit. As befits the character of Dany, Nikouli is the more abrasively charismatic presence, endearing and exasperating in equal measure. The burlier, lower-key Gelia supports him with the right balance of tacit tenderness and jocular aggro.