Bleak-looking “Vodka Lemon” leaves good taste

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin)
May 12, 2005 Thursday
ALL EDITION

BLEAK-LOOKING VODKA LEMON’ LEAVES GOOD TASTE

By Rob Thomas

The tiny Armenian village that’s at the center of “Vodka Lemon” looks
like it fell out of an airplane onto a frozen tundra. Little
ramshackle houses dot an otherwise vast and cold landscape where the
endless snowdrifts are only broken up by patches of ice.

Since most of the homes aren’t heated anyway, most of the locals sit
outside in the snow on rickety folding chairs, looking tiny against
the blinding white landscape. It’s like they’re living in a gigantic
Samuel Beckett play.

Somehow, this frozen burg is one of the most inviting cinematic
locations I’ve been to in a while. Director Hiner Saleem, a
long-exiled Iraqi Kurd, takes a setting and subject matter that would
be bleak drama in most filmmakers’ hands, and turns it into wry and
warm comedy.

The village has basically been forgotten about in Armenia’s
post-Soviet era, and the locals talk ruefully about the good old days
of totalitarian rule.

“The socialists pretended to do everything for us, and we pretended
to do everything for them,” one villager recalls, almost fondly.

Now, nobody’s doing much of anything; most able-bodied folk have left
town to seek their fortunes elsewhere, leaving the older residents
behind.

Widower Hamo Isko (Romen Avinian) is one of the town’s patriarchs;
with his bushy white beard and wild hair, he exudes an Omar
Sharif-like charisma as he trudges around the snow-capped landscape.
Once in a while, he gets to travel to a larger city to pick up a
letter from one of his sons, who have relocated to France and
Uzbekistan. It’s a running joke that he’s always hoping to find a
little money included, a gag that pays off big at the end of the
film.

On his bus rides to the snow-covered local cemetery to visit (and
scrape the ice off) his late wife’s grave, he notices another woman
riding the bus. She’s Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a shy and lonely woman
who works at a forlorn little roadside liquor stand. There’s a mutual
attraction there — after all, what else is there to do in this town?
— but both are still beholden to their departed loved ones.

Around this budding little romance, Saleem weaves all sorts of little
subplots and comic bits. At times his gags seem inspired by silent
comedies; a scene where Hamo staggers around the side of the highway
with a giant armoire strapped to his back, like an ant trying to
carry a graham cracker, is positively Chaplinesque. And the film ends
on a surreal image of such remarkable whimsy and good cheer that it
will keep you warm for a while after the credits roll, no matter how
cold it is outside the theater.

VODKA LEMON

***

Rated: Not rated, but contains some mild language and adult
situations.
Stars: Romen Avinain, Lala Sarkissian.
Length: 1:28.
Where: Orpheum.

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