A `Vodka Lemon' for lonely nights

The State (Columbia, South Carolina)
Friday, Feb. 25, 2005

By DESSON THOMSON, The Washington Post

`Vodka Lemon,' a thematically bleak yet subtly comic film, is about
life in a world of nothing.

A world of icy nothing, that is. In post-Soviet Armenia, the land is
covered in snow, jobs are nonexistent and the inhabitants' only
economic options are to leave for other countries or eke out a
miserable existence, many selling off their household possessions.

It's a pretty regular sight to see people trundling wardrobes or
pianos along the roads, hoping to make some money. `Selling or
buying?' others will ask, and, at this point, the bartering begins.

Aging Hamo (Romen Avinian) is a terrible haggler. So he doesn't walk
away with much after selling his wardrobe, his old army uniform or his
television. But like his fellow citizens, he has amazing resilience
and pride.

Each day, he makes the bus trip to a snowbound cemetery, where he
speaks to the headstone and image of his recently departed wife. He
tells her of his measly pension and the letter from one of their sons
(now living in France), which contained no money, or the other son who
drinks too much.

Little by little, Hamo pays attention to another person coming to pay
respects. Her name is Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a widow who also
converses with a dead spouse. She comes to the graveyard at the same
time and takes the same bus. They both wipe the ice from the
headstones and talk to their loved ones.

While Hamo sells off his things, Nina earns money at a vodka bar
called Vodka Lemon, which is also the name of the drink she serves.

`Why is it called 'Vodka Lemon' when it tastes of almonds?' asks a
customer at Nina's bar.

`That's Armenia,' Nina says.

It doesn't take a lifetime of watching global cinema to anticipate
that Hamo and Nina are destined for each other. Or to appreciate the
visual poetry of writer-director Hiner Saleem, an Iraqi Kurd whose eye
for the deadpan on a frigid landscape faintly echoes the work of
Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki.

In both filmmakers' films, the characters move to elusive, stoic
rhythms whose individual beats seem to be months long. A sudden
gesture from these souls comes across as a thunderclap, and their
isolated pronouncements have a seriocomic weight to them. When Hamo
sells his dresser to an old married couple, they find themselves stuck
with a heavy piece of furniture in the middle of nowhere.

`Maybe it wasn't such a good idea,' says the wife, as they sit on a
stool, back to back.

`You always speak the truth too late,' says her husband.


`Vodka Lemon'

2- stars

In Armenian, Russian and Kurdish, with English subtitles


Running time: 1:27

Playing: Monday-Thursday at the Nickelodeon