Greek cinema can sometimes be dependent on telling heavy stories about social injustice or overwhelming problems. In fact, a lot of European cinema can be like that. So when a sweet and quirky little film like Xenia comes along, we have to stop and just appreciate the brilliance. It may be a film with as many flaws as moments of brilliance, but it is a great film nonetheless.
The world’s preoccupation for action and horror films, where story and spectacle supersede performances, it is wonderful to see the actors carry the film for once. Xenia tells the story of two young men – Dany (Kostas Nikouli) and Ody (Nikos Gelia), a pair of Albanian brothers who go in search of their biological father that abandoned them years before, in their attempts to gain Greek citizenship so that they can stay in Greece and not have to fear xenophobic violence from fascists. Its a very simple story, and one that shouldn’t really take the two hour running time it does, but it is worth every minute of it.
First and foremost, this is a film about brothers. Their relationship is rocky at first, but we soon discover that they have a certain fondness for each other, and while they do cause the other considerable irritation (I’m talking to you, Dany) they are inseparable in their quest. It is worth it because all other film cliches, such as romance or revenge, remain in the background while the journey of these two brothers takes centre stage, which is one reason why European cinema is the best in the world. It never strains to be socially relevant or to grab a huge audience – some will find it pretentious or boring, while others will see it as a sweet and melancholic journey where the idea of family above everything else is just another option in life. The performances from Nikouli and Gelia are absolutely stellar, and both are brilliant in their performances as the two brothers.
However, I have to name Kostas Nikouli as the standout – he truly gives a tour-de-force performance, and is equal parts hilarious as he is heartbreaking. His interactions with everyone show Nikouli’s talent at bringing nuance and detail into the mind of a mentally unstable teenager. It is a complex performance that one can’t take their eyes away from – it is a star-making turn and hopefully he will get more work in the future of this caliber. However, Gelia is no slouch either, and his beautiful rendition of an Italian love song will surely bring a slight tear to everyone’s eyes. The chemistry of the two brothers is absolutely wonderful, and very rare in modern films.
The supporting cast is also quite strong, but I do need to give special mention to Aggelos Papadimitriou, who plays Madame Tassos, the flamboyant and hilarious old man who was a friend to the boys’ deceased mother. Although he doesn’t have an enormous role, his interactions with the boys are spectacularly funny and highlights of the film. I must also praise Marissa Triandafyllidou, who plays Vivi, the wife of the boy’s biological father. She tries to avoid taking sides with the boys and attempts to stand by her husband, but discovering their plight, can’t help but feel empathy for them. She does brilliantly at playing the role as a worried but caring woman who wants to help the boys, but keep peace in her family.
Xenia is a small, quaint little comedy-drama. It is heart-wrenchingly sad, gut-bustingly hilarious and brilliantly made. It is rather long, and there are some plot points that are introduced but never resolved – such as the reason why Dany has the rabbit, or why exactly the brothers drifted apart the way they did. The film ends with a great big dose of ambiguity, which isn’t really a flaw, but allows us to have some sense of wonder as to where these two boys will go next, and what trouble they will cause. It is a very sweet and emotional film, and one of the best of the year for sure.