Hiner Saleem’s “Vodka Lemon” is a dry, dark comedy about an unlikely late-life romance in the midst of a snowy, desolate Armenian village. Hamo (Ronen Avinian) is a sixty-something widower barely surviving on his military pension. He lives in hope that a son in Paris will send him money, but the distant son only includes photographs in his occasional letters.
Hamo keeps himself busy with frequent trips to the cemetery, where he converses with the headstone of his late wife. Elsewhere in the cemetery is Nina (Lala Sarkissian), an attractive widow who works in the rundown Vodka Lemon bar on the outskirts of the village. Hamo and Nina takes an unusually long time to connect, but eventually they discover a greater sense of hope and warmth with each other.
Much of “Vodka Lemon” is meant to satirize life in post-Soviet Armenia. Faded posters of the USSR can be spotted on walls and at one point Hamo waxes nostalgically about the abundance of services once available under the long-dead Soviet rule. The bleak poverty of the village and the impatient wait for funds from abroad are clearly meant to serve as a microcosm for today’s Armenia, which has its own struggles with a widescale lack of resources and an acute lack of foreign investment.
The film is very well made, especially Christophe Pollock’s remarkable cinematography (it is no mean feat to frame a frozen dreary landscape with such artistry), and the idea of giving the romantic spotlight to an older couple is always welcome in today’s youth-centric cinema. But the film’s leisurely pacing is often too slow for its own good, and many scenes meander endlessly with no true payoff (most notably a too-lengthy scene of Nina riding alone on a bus with a driver singing an Armenian pop tune). “Vodka Lemon” actually feels like a short film padded into a feature. The post-Soviet satire wears out its effectiveness fairly quickly and the romance between Hamo and Nina takes a very, very long time to build steam. Waiting for the inevitable union between these older lovers can easily fray one’s patience.
“Vodka Lemon” is actually an Armenian-French-Italian-Swiss co-production, helmed by an Iraqi Kurdish writer-director. How’s that for a mulitnational coalition?