In an image evoking both Chagall and Kaurismaki, Hamo and Nina find, if not hope exactly, some acceptance and joy.
Vodka LemonDirector: Hiner Saleem
Cast: Romen Avinian, Lala Sarkissian, Ivan Franek, Ruzan Mesropyan, Zahal Karielchvili
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: New Yorker Films
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2004-10-08 (Limited release)
In Vodka Lemon's bleakest surroundings, there is a poetry so peculiar it's almost perverse. Beauty is here, in the depths of snowy, post-Soviet Armenia, in the rooftops of a desolate, frozen village peeking from snowdrifts, in a wretched room's dirty corners, in the heartfelt warblings of a local bus driver. And humor, likewise, is here, tempered, though, with the overwhelming heartbreak of poverty and loss.
Director Hiner Saleem, an exiled Iraqi Kurd who doubtless knows something about unorthodox ways to deal with tragedy, touches this beauty and humor with pathos. The fact that he does so, rather than focusing completely on his subjects' anguish, contributes substantially to Vodka Lemon's success. It's surprising that a depiction of the failures of capitalism after the failures of communism could be so funny. Yet here it is, something that almost shouldn't be, a warm treasure of a film covered, like its saddened characters, in layers of ice.
Leading the cast of dejected but never humorless villagers is Hamo (Romen Avinian), a 60-something widower who waits daily for his youngest son in Paris to send him money. Hamo survives on a seven-dollars-a-month pension and whatever he can raise by selling his few, prized possessions: a wardrobe he purchased for his wife, an ancient, clunky television, his military uniform. Hamo's small attempts at survival and his re-discovery of love towards the end of his life constitute the crux of the film.
As Hamo, Romen Avinian holds in his wrinkled, weather-beaten face some of Vodka Lemon's unusual poetry. His performance is so focused, so easy and natural, that he seems a part of his environment, his white stubble and mustache crafted from the snow all around him. When Hamo's hinted romance with Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a beautiful younger widow, finally culminates physically, Saleem cuts to a rapturous shot of gently falling snow. As they fully inhabit their bodies, they become fully a part of their surroundings.
In this and other instances, Saleem reveals these characters are tied desperately to an idea of their land. Not to any particular country or any particular way of life (the Soviets and their communism, after all, have come and gone, and capitalism has taken their place with no discernable patriotic effect), but to their environment. During Hamo's granddaughter's wedding ceremony, the villagers slaughter a sheep and march through the hillside, enacting what appears to be some ancient natural ritual. And the town's product, the vodka lemon of the title, tastes strongly of almonds ("That's Armenia," Nina remarks). While the younger residents, like Hamo's son, have departed for other, more forgiving lands, the older generation remains, selling their burdensome possessions one at a time, becoming more and more weightless, drifting towards death. This slow material loss, it seems, is preferable still to losing history and home, what remains of either.
History and home, here, are confused. For most of the villagers, both have primarily consisted of the artifice of occupation -- from 1920 until 1991, Armenia was occupied by the USSR. But even the Soviet withdrawal is a small comfort; once the Soviets have left, an even deeper confusion sets in. What remains to be cherished is the stark setting, articulated by Christophe Pollock's exceptional cinematography.
The bleakness is central to the town's beauty, the inhabitants' despair their source of humor and, despite the seeming contradiction, joy. In this juxtaposition, Saleem recalls Aki Kaurismaki, the great Finnish director who also loves the downtrodden, his characters reaching for -- and usually achieving -- salvation while they live in the gutter. A beguiling scene on the bus particularly evokes Kaurismaki: Nina and Hamo trade tiny glances and smiles, shy and unsure, both hilarious and tender in their insecurity. When a melancholy love song bursts from the bus driver, who sings along with his tape deck, Vodka Lemon briefly becomes a soaring little musical. Once life's hardships set in again, the film remains lifted on that buoyancy, carried along with the possibility of happiness found in fatalism.
Fittingly, it is a depiction of love in the midst of despair that closes Vodka Lemon. During the last third or so, the film veers into melodrama, which threatens the very delicacy that sustains its appeal. Yet, happily, it journeys back into a magical realism so slight as to be absurd, not whimsical, touching yet not soft. At the conclusion, in an image evoking both Chagall and Kaurismaki, Hamo and Nina find, if not hope exactly, some acceptance and joy. They sit at Nina's piano, on a snowy street, choosing each other instead of financial stability. Beauty is to be found not in denial of harshness, but in the very depths of sorrow. Even here, Vodka Lemon finds space for music.