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Vodka Lemon (2003)

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 86 minutes

UK Certificate: PG


In a small Kurdish village, it has been a long and unforgiving winter. Armenia’s recent liberation from Russian control has led to the collapse of state welfare and the privatisation of utilities, leaving everyone so woefully impoverished that even the old Soviet days are now tinged with a certain nostalgia. The best remaining hope for the young is to get a job outside of the village, or to marry someone who has already done so, and for the older generations there is little hope at all. So it is that Hamo (Romen Avinian), a grandfather who was once a decorated soldier, now spends his days chatting to the snow-covered tombstone of his recently deceased wife, or else bartering away his already meagre household furnishings for much-needed cash. All he has to live on is his past, and his regular visits to the cemetery merely seem to be preparing him for a more permanent stay – until, that is, he meets Nina (Lola Sarkissian), a vendor at a vodka lemon stall who also comes daily to the graveyard to tend her husband’s headstone – and gradually they begin to glow in each other’s warmth as the first signs of the spring thaw appear.

An elderly man slowly stripping his house of every possession, a widow unable to afford the busfare to her husband’s grave, a loving father (Ivan Franek) negotiating the sale of his own daughter (Astrik Avaguian) with a fiancé (Zahal Karielachvili) who is less wealthy than he seems, a talented musician (Ruzan Mesropyan) reduced to selling first her own body and then her beloved piano. These are just some of the narrative threads that run through ‘Vodka Lemon’, a bittersweet portrait of desperate people forced to sell everything that they have and love just to maintain circumstances that are already impossibly bleak – and it would be almost too depressing to watch were it not for the light layering of surrealism that covers it like snow.

Winner of the San Marco Prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival, ‘Vodka Lemon’ opens with the striking image of a man being towed over ice while he is still lying in bed so that he can play flute for a funeral. This bed-ridden geriatric’s destination resonates with grim metaphor in a film where everyone seems to be headed inexorably for the grave, but at the same time the revelation that he is a musician, and still playing at death’s door, introduces what will become a constant theme in the film – the transcendent power of music to renew hope for the future – which culminates in the film’s final moment of magical realism around a miraculously mobile piano keyboard. None of which quite dispels the mood of misery pervading the film, but these strange musical interludes have the effect of a shot of vodka in a sub-zero chill, raising the spirits for just long enough to recover the will to keep going. It is as though Kurdish director and co-writer Hiner Saleem, whose previous films include ‘Vive la Mariée… et le Libération de Kurdistan’ (1997) and ‘Passeurs de Rêves’ (2000), is saying that you can deprive the Kurds of everything, but they will abide as long as they cling to their musical traditions – and so in ‘Vodka Lemon’ he has found the perfect vehicle both to document the everyday plight of Kurdish existence, and to celebrate the hardy longevity of Kurdish culture. Add to this the austere beauty of the camerawork and the believable grittiness of the performances, and ‘Vodka Lemon’ becomes a darkly absurd study of human suffering and survival, coming somewhere between the films of Emir Kusturica and Åki Kaurismäki.

It's Got: A horseman who inexplicably rides through many scenes; an outdoor wedding in the snow and cold; a woman who finds a way of expressing her disapproval from beyond the grave; beautifully bleak scenery;

It Needs: A long and profitable summer.

DVD Extras Metrodome widescreen presentation (1.85:1) Dolby 2.0 (Armenian) with English subtitles; scene selection; ‘Vodka on Ice’ (42min), a making-of featurette including plenty of behind-the-scenes footage that shows how harsh the filming conditions were, as well as interviews with director/co-writer Hiner Saleem (on his Kurdish roots and the film’s politics), producer Fabrice Guez (on how cast and crew “got used to eating cabbage every night with the locals”), executive producer Michel Loro and actor Ivan Franek (Dilovan); original theatrical trailer; Metrodrome trailer reel (‘The Last Victory’, ‘Lilya 4-ever’, ‘Valentín’). DVD Extras Rating: 5/10


A dourly absurdist portrait of life and death, hope and despair in a wintry Armenian village.