by Roderick Conway Morris

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Vodka with a tryst, a Return and Travels with Mystics and Magicians

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 September 2003


When filming in Armenia four years ago, a refugee Iraqi Kurd director, Hiner Saleem, discovered that: 'When you're told 'Problem nyet,' it means there will be a lot of problems ahead. When you're told, 'Just a minute,' it means two or three days. When you're told, 'Tomorrow,' it means never.' He added: 'After the first day of shooting, I promised myself that I would never come back here for professional reasons.'

Saleem changed his mind, returning this year to the former Soviet Republic to make 'Vodka Lemon,' one of the last entries to be shown in the Upstream competition of the Venice Film Festival and which won for him the San Marco prize for best film in the category, which showcases new talent.

'Vodka Lemon,' set in a Kurdish village in Armenia amid snow-covered mountains, follows the tragicomic fortunes of Hamo, a retired and widowed Red Army officer, his loser of a son and pretty granddaughter, who is to be married to a Russian. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left everybody in the village more or less destitute. As Hamo says: 'Before we had everything but freedom. Now we have freedom and nothing else.' Unable to support himself and a tribe of unemployed dependents on his $7-a-month pension, he begins to sell off his remaining treasured possessions.

Meanwhile, on his regular visits to his wife's grave, Hamo encounters Nina, a demure, but alluring Armenian widow, who comes to tend her husband's grave. Nina is in similarly desperate financial straits, trying to make a living tending a freezing, wind-swept roadside stall selling bottles of the 'Vodka Lemon' of the film's title. Slowly, and in a most courtly manner, a romance between Hamo and Nina begins to blossom.

Saleem recruited locals to play in the film and their charm, dignity and resilience in the face of deprivation is impressive, not to mention their hitherto untapped acting abilities. The tale is often funny, without trivializing the harsh realities, and brilliantly captures those surreal vignettes familiar to any traveler to this part of the world. And despite the problems these people face, the final mood is unexpectedly uplifting and optimistic. As Saleem himself has commented: 'I consider all Armenians to be magicians, as I don't understand how they succeed in surviving. I gather they don't understand either.'

Another casualty of the fall of the Soviet Union was the Russian film industry, whose output has been reduced to an uncertain trickle. But Russia showed itself resoundingly back in form with 'The Return.' This in-competition debut full-length feature, directed by the Siberian-born Andrei Zvyagintsev, and scripted by Vladimir Moisinko and Alexander Novotosky, justifiably scooped up both the Golden Lion for Best Film and the Luigi de Laurentiis prize for best first feature.

'The Return' is the story of two young brothers, Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) and Andrei (Vladimir Garin), whose father (Konstantin Lavronenko), absent for more than a decade, suddenly, without explanation turns up again. Where he has been and what he has been doing, we, like the boys, can only guess at. This taciturn and rather frightening figure offers to take the boys away fishing for a few days, a proposal they accept with some trepidation. Ivan, in particular, is full of resentment that this man has abandoned them for so long and, as the days go by a battle of wills develops, revealing the father's violent tendencies.

After a long drive, the three arrive at a remote lake buried deep in virgin forest, and the father fixes up an old boat mysteriously beached on the shore, as though waiting for his return to this spot, to take them to a deserted island. By this time there is a palpable sense of unease in the air, and a feeling that something untoward is about to happen.

The narrative has 'film noir' elements, blended with suggestive visual references, ranging from Mantegna's 'Dead Christ' to American hyperrealism, none of which, however, is overplayed. The result is an original and disturbing film. Sadly, Garin, a very promising young actor, died in an accident on the lake where the film was shot a couple of months afterward.

The Russian film's brace of prizes was an almost universally applauded choice, except among a section of the Italian film and media establishment, who had pinned their hopes on Marco Bellocchio's 'Buongiorno, notte' (Good Morning, Night).

Although this film was awarded a special prize for 'an individual contribution of particular note' for its script, the director and a cohort of sympathizers decamped, apparently in a huff, back to Rome before the closing ceremony, leaving one of its hapless stars, the popular Luigi Lo Cascio, to collect the award.

'Travelers and Magicians,' written and directed by Khyentse Norbu, was shot entirely in the wonderful scenery of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, until recently accessible to very few foreigners. This delightful film, played with panache by nonprofessional actors, has the distinction of being directed by the third incarnation of the lama of one of Tibet's most important monasteries.

The story begins as a kind of Himalayan road movie, as Dondup, a dissatisfied young civil servant who has been posted to an isolated community, takes leave with the plan of emigrating to the United States, 'the land of his dreams.' Hitchhiking and walking, he falls into the company of an old farmer, a Buddhist monk, a maker of rice paper and his pretty daughter.

When this party stops to rest, the monk relates an intriguing legend, artfully framed to make Dondup reconsider whether he will really find fulfillment and happiness beyond the land of his birth.

The ironies of a young man already living in what many would see as one of the last real oases of peace and harmony on earth imagining America as his Shangri-La, are nicely and humorously elaborated. And perhaps we, like Dondup, can pick up a little wisdom along the way.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024