- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

“Vodka Lemon,” opening exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema tomorrow, looms as a marginal outreach project for novelty-seeking art-house patrons. Absorbed in the texture of life in a snowbound, impoverished and essentially disheartening village somewhere in Kurdish Armenia, the movie is deficient in dramatic incident and variety, stimulating social observation or lively character interplay.

The work of a Kurdish Iraqi exile named Hineer Saleem, who left his homeland 20 years ago and now resides in Paris, the movie attempts to generate whimsical and even hopeful notes of humor despite a setting that favors the static and morose. The title alludes to a roadside tavern that seems to deal exclusively in bottles of Vodka Lemon, presumably a fortifier along trackless wastes. Actually, it’s more in the nature of an open-air counter, similar to a roadside produce stand.

The boss of the watering hole arrives at one point to inform his bundled-up waitress, a middle-aged widow named Nina (Lala Sarkissian), that business is too slow to justify her employment. This doesn’t come as a total surprise, bearing in mind the adage “location, location, location.”

A lugubrious matchmaker, Mr. Saleem intends Nina as a potential companion for a somewhat older widower named Hamo (Romen Avinian), a white-haired former soldier who seems to be selling off all his remaining possessions while awaiting financial assistance in vain from a son who has migrated to France. Another son, evidently beyond hope as a donor, is said to live in Samarkand. A sullen third specimen called Dilovan (Ivan Franck) is in camera range; he still lives in the village, nursing grievances about the fixer who has promised to arrange a job somewhere in the vast reaches of the former Soviet empire.

Hamo is wistful about the departure of the Russians, who at least kept up the dole. We observe that he is a less-than-wily bargainer when putting his own goods up for grabs: a wardrobe, a Soviet television monitor and an old uniform go for about 20 percent of his initial asking price. Hamo and Nina often share a bus ride during daily trips to the cemetery, obviously a symbolic as well as a picturesquely bleak landmark.

There are amusing deadpan details, particularly the local fondness for posting chairs outside in order to share a nice cold sit, smoke and, on rare occasions, chat. A drafty-looking community center allows some shelter for socializing, but the liveliest communal activity appears to be waiting for Hamo to get a call from Paris. A small herd of sheep is linked metaphorically to the docile populace, and an enigmatic horseman does four or five enigmatic ride-throughs.

Ultimately, Mr. Saleem wraps up this tour of stagnating small-town Armenia by playing the magic realism card. Nina, Hamo and her piano share a wistful vigil on the side of the road before hitting the road, in a physically impossible way. Still, the mobility itself is encouraging. The resale value of their hometown looks nil. A getaway could be just the ticket. Maybe Paris is in the market for piano duets.

**

TITLE: “Vodka Lemon”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, with fleeting violence and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Hiner Saleem. Cinematography by Christophe Pollock. Production design by Albert Hamarash. Music by Michel Korb. In Armenian, Kurdish, Russian and French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes

WEB SITE: www.newyorkerfilms.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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