New Yorker Films // 2003 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // February 13th, 2006
"Our past is sad, our present is catastrophic, but fortunately we have no future." -- Hiner Saleem's grandfather on the Kurdish people.
Vodka Lemon is an extraordinary little film. Its comedy is deeply moving and sad; its realism is so stark and blunt as to be surreal. It is the third feature from director Hiner Saleem (Beyond Our Dreams), a Kurdish Iraqi living in Paris since fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime when he was seventeen years old. In the interview that comprises the liner notes of this DVD release, Saleem quotes a 17th-century Orientalist: "The Kurds are both the saddest and most joyous people." If we had only Vodka Lemon against which to judge the accuracy of that statement, we'd have to conclude it's one-hundred percent true.
The picture affords us a glimpse into the life of Hamo (Romen Avinian, Beyond Our Dreams), a former officer in the Soviet Union living (or trying to live) in Armenian Kurdistan on a meager pension of ten dollars per month. The old man's straits are dire, but he faces them with a calm stoicism. In order to survive, he sells off his furniture and possessions as he awaits the arrival of money from his son who lives in Alfortville, France. He is continually disappointed, as his boy sends letters but no financial help. The central ritual of Hamo's day is a bus ride to the cemetery to visit his wife's grave. During the trips he meets Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a widow who shares his desperate situation. A halting, tentative romance blossoms.
Meanwhile, controversy erupts when a friend of the family impregnates the daughter of Hamo's other son, the volatile Dilovan (Ivan Franek, Chaos). And Nina's financial situation goes from bad to worse when it turns out her daughter -- whom she thought earned a living as a pianist -- is a prostitute who has gotten on the wrong side of her pimp and is now out of work. The simple pleasures of their burgeoning romance may be the only thing Hamo and Nina have left but, hey, it's better than having nothing at all.
Vodka Lemon isn't remarkable because of its mixture of comedy and drama. It's remarkable because its comedy is drama, and vice-versa. The film's razor-sharp humor is Kafkaesque, creating a cognitive dissonance of simultaneous sorrow and jollity. For instance, when we watch Hamo strap an armoire to his back and hobble through the snow to a remote location where he can attempt to sell it to passersby, there is, on the one hand, a slapstick humor in the absurdity of it, while, on the other hand, the old man's desperate situation puts a lump in your throat. Vodka Lemon is an 88-minute barrage of just this sort of poignant, bleak humor. The movie will be a miserable slog for anyone whose conscience isn't attuned to Saleem's I-shouldn't-be-laughing-at-this-misery style of humor. Those who can calibrate to the film's rhythms and sensibilities will find a mimetic depiction of lives on the edge of destruction. The movie's characters have no money and no prospects. They have no reason to smile, let alone laugh. They manage to find black humor in their circumstances and an understated joy in each other's company anyway. They are, in other words, completely and realistically human.
Saleem's cast is a combination of pros and amateurs, but you'd never know it. The characters' reticence helps the less experienced actors sidestep awkward delivery of dialogue. Though living in deprivation on a frozen tundra, the characters exude a quiet resilience and innate sense of humor. They are a tight-knit interdependent community, though they say little to one another. Grizzled and careworn, Romen Avinian looks both authentic to the picture's time and place, and like an aging Eastern Block Omar Sharif. His sense of dignified resignation is the anchor of the picture's subtle charms.
This DVD edition of Vodka Lemon has all of the high and low points typical of New Yorker Films releases. On the plus side, the image is sharp, the source materials were clean and free of damage, and colors are beautiful and accurate. Unfortunately, the disc was ported from a PAL transfer and shows signs of subtle ghosting. The biggest problem with the transfer, though, is an excess of edge enhancement. Since much of the picture is set on snow-covered tundra, characters sometimes jut out of the picture as though they're hovering in front of the landscape like cut-out paper dolls, ringed with fat halos. A slightly softer, more natural image would have been preferable.
The stereo audio track -- in Kurdish and Armenian, with a little Russian and French thrown in for good measure -- is clean and perfectly appropriate to the straight-forward sound design. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The only extras on the disc itself are a theatrical trailer for the film, as well as a vault of trailers for other New Yorker Films DVD releases. A fold-out insert inside the keepcase contains an interview with Hiner Saleem, translated into English from the original French press kit for the movie.
Vodka Lemon is a charming, deeply-felt little picture, at once funny and heart-breaking. It's a winner, even its protagonist is not.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Kurdish)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with Hiner Saleem