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Vodka Lemon

cast: Romen Avinian, Lala Sarkissian, Ivan Franek, Rouzanne Mesropian, and Zahal Karielachvili
director: Hiner Saleem
86 minutes (PG) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail
[released 7 February]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Andrew Hook
Located amongst the bleak wintry scenes of a Kurdish village in Armenia, Vodka Lemon examines the lives and loves of the villagers amidst a background of poverty and lost dreams. Winter plays a major role in the movie, with the beautiful landscapes hammering home the desolation of their situations. Not that the film is downbeat. Its message of village life is uplifting with frequent comedic episodes. Bittersweet is a much-used description, but here it feels especially appropriate.

The title of the movie comes from the name of the roadside shack from which Nina (Lala Sarkissian) sells liquor to the locals. As one comments: "Why do they still call it Vodka Lemon when it smells of almonds?" Her answer: "That's Armenia!"

Hamo (Romen Avinian), seemingly in his sixties and recently bereaved, makes daily trips to his wife's grave where over time he subtly finds himself drawn to a widow (Sarkissian) making a similar journey. One of the highlights of the film follows their return from the cemetery as the bus driver sings along to his tape deck whilst they exchange shy glances in the back of the bus. Avinian's performance is perfect, brilliantly conveying the nuances of his character. His central role in the movie is also reflected by his pivotal position in the village. Sometimes it seems that the hope of the whole village seems to rest on whether Avinian's son will send some money from Paris.

Considering that it is Sarkissian's first movie, her performance is also particularly affecting, some of the most poignant scenes being those with her daughter, who plays the piano in the local bar for tips (but who in reality is little more than a prostitute). It seems that her mother realises the true nature of her work, but as she listens to her daughter play before she leaves the home each evening, she needs to hangs onto the charade to protect their dignity and dreams.

Despite the villagers having nothing (throughout the movie Avinian sells the contents of his home - necessitating carrying a wardrobe on his back down the snow-filled roads), their determination to overcome the odds is not in dispute, with weddings celebrated with as much pomp as can be afforded. Ultimately, this is a warm-hearted movie - and whilst the relationship between Avinian and Sarkissian is hardly passionate stuff - their courtship mostly smiles and tentative dances - once they establish a bond there is an implicit understanding that their troubles will be shared together; an ideal reflecting the heart of most meaningful relationships.

As the director (Hiner Saleem, an exiled Iraqi Kurd himself) says in the interesting DVD extras, to even speak Kurdish is a political act. And whilst the film is not overly political in its subject matter, the very scenario in which the characters find themselves is born from politics. A brief exchange between two of the characters illustrates this:
"Don't you miss the time when the Russians were still here?"
"No, we didn't have any freedom then."
"Maybe, but we had everything else!" Freedom in this instance seems equal to economic suicide.

The movie isn't perfect. There are some sections that drag and seem particularly slow in the telling, but overall this is an interesting and evocative film: if nothing else, a strong social document of how some of us are forced to live.

The disc extras include a trailer which does little to sell the film, but also a 42-minute making-of featurette which is well worth watching, as the crew shoot the movie sequentially at 20 degrees below zero in order to defeat the changing seasons.

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