Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Vodka Lemon
Armenia (Arm/Fr/Ity/Switz) 2003 : Hineer SALEEM : 88 mins
The film depicts Armenia as a society verging on having sentimental feelings about the old times of the Soviet Union. Their state of living has not become better possibly worse. The protagonist is an old man whose visits to his wifes grave have become a ritual. There he always meets a woman sitting by another grave. We get to know them both, as well as their close relations, through the relationship developing between them. This love story is so full of respect and warmth that the snows of Armenia almost melt. It looks indeed cold there, with snow, wind, slush, bad clothing and bad housing and still they do their drinking outside Vodka Lemon!
Having experienced a 20th century marked by terrible earthquakes, a notorious genocide (see Ararat) and decades of Soviet control, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Armenians are such a notably tough and durable bunch even in their American diaspora, which includes such famously indestructable figures as Cher (born Cherilyn Sarkasian) and Andre Agassi (whose migr father changed his name from the more recognisably Armenian Agassian.)
These traits are visible in Vodka Lemon, a small-scale but thoroughly beguiling chronicle of events in a small, remote village nestling among the mountains. The plot emerges through the careful accumulation of detail, with flinty old widower Hamo (Romik Avinian, a cross between Omar Sharif and Harold Steptoe) drifting towards a delicate September-December romance with attractive fiftysomething widow Nina (Lala Sarkissian – possibly one of Chers long-lost relatives?).
It isn’t groundbreaking stuff by any means, but writer-director Saleem (an Iraqi Kurd, now based in Paris) deserves credit for the way his characters and story seem to emerge organically from their sparse, snow-bound environment. While a sub-plot involving the eventful wedding of Hamos grand-daughter tends to get in the way a little, this doesn’t detract too much from the overall atmosphere of genial charm that falls just the right side of whimsy. Saleem even gets away with including a singing bus-driver, who ferries Hamo and Nina to and from their spouses black granite graves.
Blending romance, comedy and tragedy, Saleem avoids melodrama and the National Geographic worthy ethnography trap by ensuring the story remains focussed on the characters throughout (Avinian is very good in the central role), and by constructing a world for them to inhabit that feels believably real, though touched with moments of slightly off-kilter absurdity. The opening shot shows an elderly bed-ridden gent being towed at speed down a snowy road and there’s a delightful (literally) running joke featuring a horseman who gallops through many scenes without dialogue or explanation, at one point even skilfully navigating his way between a couple of chairs.
Saleem also handles the wider political issues behind Armenias current problems with humour and restraint. They pretended to do everything for us, and we pretended to do everything for them, someone remarks of the Soviets at one point. Now we have to pay for gas, electricity, water we have nothing left but our freedom. Sitting on their wooden chairs outdoors, sipping their favoured drink Vodka Lemon the Armenians display a seen-it-all stoicism that will surely see them through this rocky transition to the post-Communist world. Why is it called Vodka Lemon, when it tastes like almonds? Someone asks. Thats Armenia, comes the matter-of-fact reply.
3rd February, 2004
(seen 13th January : Fokus Cinema, Troms Troms International Film Festival)
click here for a full list of reviewed films from the Troms International Film Festival 2004
by Neil Young