Newark Star Ledger, NJ
Oct 7 2004
A bracing libation for some
‘Vodka Lemon’ serves up an intoxicating — and cryptic — Armenian
BY LISA ROSE
Set in the snow-cloaked barrens of Armenia, “Vodka Lemon” centers on
characters who are suffering such financial hardship, they must
peddle family heirlooms to put food on the table.
The situation may be bleak, but the mood is anything but somber. The
movie has a surrealist streak and a musical tilt, much like the gypsy
epics of Balkan director Emir Kusturica (“Underground”).
The very first image is of an elderly man in a rickety bed being
towed through the tundra, fastened to the back of a truck. When he
reaches his destination, he’s handed a glass for his false teeth and
props himself up in bed to play a reed instrument. The haunting hail
of notes is a funeral dirge, performed for a group of mourners
gathered around a grave site mounded over with snow.
It’s a good 20 minutes before it’s revealed who’s being buried and
how it relates to the main plot. Some audience members might not have
the patience to try to decode the enigmatic opening scenes. But those
who stay with it and surrender to the icy reverie will find that the
scattered pieces coalesce into a sweet, intoxicating love story
steeped in cultural tradition.
The main character, Hamo (Romen Avinian), is a widower maned with
silver hair and hunched with melancholy. Living on a meager military
pension, he rues the rise of capitalism, reasoning that under the
Soviet regime, at least his family’s basic needs were tended to. He
visits the grave of his late wife every day, and in his daily ritual,
he seems to be lamenting the fall of communism as well.
One day Hamo crosses paths with Nina (Lala Sarskissian), a woman who
works at a roadside bar that specializes in the title beverage. She
has just lost her husband and also lives in squalor, unable even to
pay bus fare to work. After trading a few tentative glances, Hamo and
Nina begin a courtship, expressing affection through kind gestures
rather than words.
At heart, the film is a romantic comedy, albeit a highly cryptic one.
Writer-director Hiner Saleem (“Absolitude”) delivers lots of long
sequences in wintry settings featuring people not talking. A man on
horseback trots randomly through scenes, a surly bus driver bursts
into velvety pop ballads and a gravestone etching magically shifts
“Vodka Lemon” won’t suit everyone’s taste. It’s certainly not for
those who prefer movies on the more linear end of the narrative
spectrum. Yet there is no small amount of splendor to be found in its
frozen panoramas and charm in its idiosyncratic storytelling.
Rating note: The film contains strong language, sexual content,
violence against animals and pervasive alcohol abuse.