Dir: Hiner Saleem. France/Italy/Switzerland/Armenia. 2003. 84mins
The bittersweet realities of a post-Communist world are threatening to create a mini movie genre. A good deal of the sly humour in Good Bye, Lenin! stemmed from a nostalgic longing for life before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Vodka Lemon, a snowy, dirt-poor Kurdish village also begins to consider if life was really so bad under Soviet rule. Rich in weary irony and gentle observations of human nature, Vodka Lemon does not have the crowd pleasing qualities and ingenious storytelling of the Wolfgang Becker hit but it is classic international arthouse fare. The Best Film prize in the Upstream section at Venice and subsequent interest from critics and Festivals can only extend the scope of its theatrical life on the arthouse circuit.
Reminiscent of Aki Kaurismaki or Emir Kusturica in its deadpan comedy, compassion and ability to mix grim reality with fairytale fantasy, Vodka Lemon is the fourth feature from exiled Kurdistan director Hiner Saleem who has lived in Paris for the past decade. A tale of survival in the most difficult of times, it smiles at the absurdity of the world and salutes those irrepressible romantics who retain their optimism when all around have surrendered to despair.
Set in the kind of snow-dusted landscapes that might have inspired Ansell Adams, the film focuses on retired army officer Hamo (Avinian). Every day, he takes the bus to visit his wife's grave and tell her of their family and the village. One son is now in Paris but sends news and photographs rather than much needed money. Hamo's army pension is less than ten dollars a month and abject poverty has visited all the villagers. Each day, Hamo also glimpses beautiful widow Nina (Sarkissian) brush the snow from her husband's grave. They share a daily bus ride to the cemetery and gradually move closer together.
Although the relationship between Hamo and Nina is charmingly told, it is a small glowing ember in the midst of a good deal of unhappiness. Money is scarce. Opportunity is scarcer and a edge of desperation has crept into the lives of everyone. Hamo is selling off his possessions to survive, usually settling for the lowest bid from the same heartless customer. Nina is sacked from her job selling bottles of Vodka Lemon. "Why is it called Vodka Lemon when it tastes of almonds'" demands one customer. "That's Armenia," she replies. A wilderness cut off from the world, it is becoming a community of lost souls. "Don't you miss the time when the Russians were here'" someone asks.
Hampered by the kind of slow, measured pace that tests the patience, the film does display a winning sense of the ridiculous in some of its more striking moments as Hamo staggers to town to sell a wardrobe tied to his back, an old man on a brass bed is pulled through the snow and an unknown horseman comes bursting across the landscape at regular intervals. Life is crazy in Vodka Lemon but Saleem also makes it beautiful and touching enough that arthouse audiences will want to watch.
Prod co: Dulcine, Idem, Sintra, Amka Films
Int'l sales: Dulcine, Paris
Prod: Fabrice Guez
Exec prod: Michel Loro
Scr: Saleem, Lei Dinety, Pauline Gouzenne
Cinematography: Christopher Pollock
Prod des: Kamal Hamarash
Ed: Dora Mantzoros
Music: Roustam Sadoyan
Main cast: Lala Sarkissian, Romen Avinian, Ivan Franek, Armen Marouthian, Astrik Avaguian