Set in a small Armenian village that seems to be in the grip of a perpetual winter, Vodka Lemon is a deliberately paced comedy-drama that unfolds in a former outpost of the Soviet Republic, now free from the often malevolent whims of Moscow, but also economically adrift. With freedom comes grinding poverty and no socialist safety net; the living could be pretty shabby in the old days, but some basic bills were taken care of by the state. The film has an undercurrent of ambiguity toward the post-Soviet era. It’s not exactly nostalgia, but more like the feeling that history has played some weird joke on the populace and then moved on.
Hamo is a widower barely getting by on a small pension and gets no help from his three grown ne’er-do-well sons. He makes daily visits to his wife’s grave, bringing her flowers and telling her the latest news. It’s at the cemetery and on the long bus ride to and fro that he begins to notice the widower Nina, making the same trip to her late husband’s plot. Slowly — very slowly — they make their tentative way to their inevitable meeting. Meanwhile, we’re treated to the squalid facts of their personal lives. Nina’s daughter, unable to make a sufficient living as a pianist, has been forced into prostitution, while Hamo tries to a make ends meet by selling off all of his possessions, one by one.
All this may sound grim, but director Hiner Saleem emphasizes the absurdist aspects of poverty in a cold climate, and the characters’ struggles to get by against all odds have a weird comic tinge, as futile endeavors often do. They’re operating in an area where nothing quite makes sense anymore, and even the local drink, Vodka Lemon, has the decidedly non-lemony taste of almonds.
By the end of the Vodka, Hamo has sold all his furniture and the future looks bleak for him and everyone else in the movie, but the filmmakers have decided on a little last-minute uplift, which leads to a tacked-on ending. It’s meant to show how Hamo and Nina’s newfound happiness together transcends their materialistic woes, but it’s too cute by half. It seems, in fact, like the kind of thing that one might come up with after a few shots of the title drink.
In Armenian, Kurdish and Russian with English subtitles. Showing at 7:30 p.m., Monday, March 28, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3137).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.