Distinguished by ravishingly beautiful images of a desolate community enveloped in heavy snow, Kurdish director Hiner Saleem's fourth feature film is a little gem that takes a potentially grim subject and mines it for maximum humor and insight.

Distinguished by ravishingly beautiful images of a desolate community enveloped in heavy snow, Kurdish director Hiner Saleem’s fourth feature film is a little gem that takes a potentially grim subject and mines it for maximum humor and insight. Filled with quietly amusing sight gags that testify to the enduringly optimistic spirits of its beleaguered characters, the film is quite a charmer, but perhaps too slight to attract wide commercial attention. Quality TV networks should, however, want to program the film, and festivals should be standing in line for an undoubted crowd-pleaser.

The writer-director’s aptitude for blending comedy and pathos is evident in the film’s opening sequence: a funeral taking place in a snow-covered graveyard and attended by, among others, an aged man apparently unable to leave his bed. His friends have tied his bed (which is on wheels) to the back of a truck, which drags the old-timer to the graveside, where he removes his false teeth and joins a group of musicians playing the flute.

The isolated village is experiencing hard times. As one character remarks, “Before the Russians left we didn’t have our freedom, but we had everything else.” Now, there’s no work and no prospects, while electricity and water, which used to be free, now have to be paid for.

Hamo (Romik Avinian) is a widower who regularly visits the cemetery to talk to his late wife, whose picture is engraved on her tombstone. At his age, Hamo expects to be supported by his three sons, but things haven’t worked out that way. One son lives in the village and is jobless, while another is in Samarkand and is hardly ever mentioned. Hamo’s third son is living in France, and he constantly expects to receive money from him.

Despite the apparently grim theme, Saleem’s touch is consistently light and amusing. Hamo begins to court Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a widow who visits the cemetery as often as he does and rides with him on the bus back to town. Nina has a job at the Vodka Lemon, a bar that does little business and is forced to close down.

The film is packed with sight gags rather in the style of Georgian director Otar Iosseliani. A horseman regularly gallops through the town, though his mission is never revealed. An interfering woman compromises Hamo’s attempts to sell his possessions to get money.

Christophe Pollock’s consistently inventive camerawork beautifully conveys this little community and its quirky inhabitants; film is visually rich. Important, too, is the rich music score by Michel Korb. The entire cast enact their roles with unaffected naturalness, and the result is a small but utterly disarming film.

Vodka Lemon

France-Switzerland-Armenia-Italy

Production

A Dulcine Films, Arte France Cinema-Cinefacto (France)/Amka Films (Switzerland)/Paradise Films (Armenia)/Sintra Films (Italy) co-production, in association with CNC, Eurimages, Canal Plus. (International sales: Dulcine Films, Paris.) Produced by Fabrice Guez. Executive producer, Michel Loro. Directed, written by Hiner Saleem.

Crew

Camera (color), Christophe Pollock; editor, Dora Mantzorou; music, Michel Korb; production designer, Kamal Hamarash; costume designer, Rosanna Vite Mesropian; sound (Dolby Digital), Frederic Ullmann; associate producers, Rosanna Seregni, Tiziana Soudani, Martun Adoyan; assistant director, Carole Amen. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Undercurrents, competing), Sept. 4, 2003. Running time: 90 MIN. (Armenian dialogue)

With

Hamo - Romik Avinian Nina - Lala Sarkissian Hamo - Romik Avinian Nina - Lala Sarkissian Dilovan - Ivan Franek Zine - Rouzanne Mesropian Giano - Zahal Karielachvili
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