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'Vodka Lemon': Cool Customers

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page WE35

"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.

Hamo (Romen Avinian) needs to work on his bartering skills in the bleak but comic "Vodka Lemon." (New Yorker Films)

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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 writerdirector 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 big 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 (Unrated, 87 minutes) -- Contains a momentary burst of gunfire. In Armenian, Russian and Kurdish, with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company