Hiner Saleem's droll comedy "Vodka Lemon" reveals a beguiling gift for making things happen in a place where nothing much is going on. It is set in what looks to be the middle of nowhere — a tiny village in a vast snow-covered valley in rural Armenia. The nearest post office is in a town a bus ride away. This scattering of rough-hewn roadside cabins in the deep of winter resembles a near-abandoned mining town in the Old West.
In a post-Soviet present as harsh as the climate, the inhabitants in fact feel abandoned themselves. One neighbor remarks that democracy has given the people freedom, but his friend points out that the Communists gave them everything else. Now everyone has to pay for gas, electricity and oil while the community hovers near a bare subsistence level. Except for a passing shepherd and his flock, no one seems to be working, nor do there seem to be any job opportunities whatsoever. Clearly, the younger generation is fleeing — and much of it has already fled.
That includes one of the sons of Hamo Isko (Romen Avinian), who has sought a better life in Paris. (Another is off in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and the other stays home and drinks.) Hamo is a striking patriarchal figure, a ruggedly handsome, silver-haired, bearded man of military bearing; he looks to be a fit 70 or thereabouts. His service pension is the equivalent of $7 a month, and some of the film's rueful humor derives from him selling by the roadside his three absolutely nonessential possessions: a country-style armoire with folk art decorations that in many other places would fetch a fancy sum but yields only $10 for Hamo; an old TV, which may or may not work; and Hamo's military camouflage uniform. (The sale of the armoire to a passing couple triggers a comic sequence worthy of the classic silent comedians.)
With nothing much to do, Hamo spends a lot of time visiting the cemetery where his recently deceased wife is buried. He notices that an attractive woman, Nina (Lala Sarkissian), visits the grave of her late husband with much frequency. Gradually they take note of each other. The attraction is mutual, but Hamo is beset by the feeling that he must be loyal to his wife's memory, and Nina is overcome even more strongly by shyness. As Saleem, a long-exiled Iraqi Kurd, wends his way through amusing incidents and various subplots, he generates hope that romance may find a way to blossom between two people who have so little in life outside of, potentially, each other.
"Vodka Lemon" is an appealingly wry little film that is as appetizing as its title, which is the name of a roadside liquor stand where Nina works. Saleem, whose fourth film this is, ends on a note of inspired whimsy that has aptly been compared to a magical image by Marc Chagall.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Suitable for older children
A New Yorker Films release. Writer-director Hiner Saleem. Producer Fabrice Guez. Executive producer Michel Loro. Cinematographer Christophe Pollock. Editor Dora Mantzorou. Music Michel Korb. Production designer Albert Hamarsh. In Armenian, Russian and Kurdish, with English subtitles.Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (at Faifax Avenue), (323) 655-4010; and the One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (at Colorado Boulevard), Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times