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'Vodka Lemon': A Warm Glance at Life on the Rocks

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page C01

If "Vodka Lemon" conjures images of tonic cocktails served against a sun-splashed backdrop, think again. This wry romantic comedy from writer-director Hiner Saleem is set against a snowscape of such vast desolation that it makes Monday's cold snap seem like the doggiest days of August.

Set in post-Soviet Armenia, "Vodka Lemon" dispenses with the usual conventions of most holiday films at the multiplex. Indeed, it's amusing to imagine how this almost defiantly quirky film might be pitched in the bowels of Culver City: "It's a love story about people who are poor, disenfranchised and almost completely without hope! With a cast of complete unknowns! In Armenian!"

An old man has a strange way of going to a funeral in Hiner Saleem's quirky "Vodka Lemon." (New Yorker Films)

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It also works, thanks in large part to those unknowns. Romen Avinian plays a sixtyish widower named Hamo who lives in an impoverished unnamed village with his alcoholic son and voluptuous granddaughter. Playing a man whose haggard sense of defeat belies still robust appetites, Avinian provides the ballast in an ensemble cast playing a motley crew of characters, villagers whose chronic shifts between hope and resignation have congealed into a permanent state of suspended animation.

The good news is that they're free of the Russian boot, which is precisely the bad news: Without state subsidies, these scrappy survivors must now carve a precarious existence out of anything at hand -- selling their own meager belongings on the gray market ("Does it work or does it really work?" a buyer asks Hamo about a television that really doesn't), or providing the local aperitif of choice at the open-air outpost from which the movie takes its title.

That rickety boite's shy, shivering barkeep would be Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a middle-aged beauty whom Hamo meets at the cemetery where both come to visit their late spouses' graves. Saleem takes his time getting the two together; first he puts them in any number of absurdist vignettes designed to convey both the bleakness of the Armenians' lot and the tough humor with which they confront it. These scenes are sometimes orchestrated with a self-consciousness that's a bit too precious (Saleem, an exiled Iraqi Turk, started out as a painter and poet, and it shows). But many of them have the existential whimsy of Ionesco. (Indeed, one of the film's visual leitmotifs recalls Ionesco's play "The Chairs"; this is a village where nearly everyone carries his or her own, whether to plop down for an impromptu drink or, more likely, wait for a bus that always arrives, eventually.)

The sense of unrequited anticipation is finally resolved in an improbably lush love scene set -- where else? -- on that very bus. Saleem is too unsentimental to linger there for long; soon Hamo and Nina are trudging through those same impenetrable snowdrifts. But he's just romantic enough to end "Vodka Lemon" on an impossibly hopeful note -- and on the cusp of what looks suspiciously like an impending thaw.

Vodka Lemon (88 minutes, in Armenian, Russian and Kurdish with English subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.

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