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Twists add charm to 'Vodka Lemon'

If any geographical area can be said to have been hosed by history, the mountainous region around Aparan, Armenia, qualifies. Turkish genocide, Soviet occupation, a large population of Kurds to abuse -- and that's just the 20th century. Every now and then, a figure on horseback gallops madly through the background of ''Vodka Lemon," as if to remind viewers that the Mongol hordes passed this way as well. For all the weary inhabitants of this movie know, they're coming back.

If so, at least they'd offer a diversion. Hiner Saleem's fanciful, minor-key, extremely likable comedy imagines life in a geopolitical football that the world has abruptly stopped kicking. Nothing much happens in this tiny snowbound village in the high peaks -- or in the movie itself -- and the truth of the matter is that's how the residents like it. They may be poor, they may be freezing, but for once history is happening elsewhere.

The central character out of a dozen lives glimpsed sideways is Hamo (Romik Avinian), a courtly older man with a full head of white hair and a healthy appreciation for the absurdities of fate -- he gives the impression of a sea captain who has mislaid his fleet, or Omar Sharif playing a figure out of Nabokov. Hamo is reduced to selling off his old army uniforms for food money and hoping that one of his sons living in Europe will send cash, preferably American dollars.

He also spends part of each day visiting his wife's grave in the local cemetery, a barren piece of tundra so frozen it's a wonder they can put anyone underneath. Hamo tells her the latest gossip, and occasionally the wife's engraved portrait on the headstone changes expression in response. This was a good gag when Preston Sturges did it in 1941's ''Sullivan's Travels" and it still gets a laugh in 21st-century Armenia.

Visiting her husband's grave each day is Nina (Lala Sarkissian), an attractive widow in her 50s, and as she and Hamo ride the local bus to the cemetery, listening to the driver (Armen Sarkissyan) lip-synch French pop songs, they grow incrementally closer. Both understand there's no need to rush things.

Elsewhere, Nina's daughter (Rouzana-Vite Mesropian) passes herself off as a hotel bar pianist even though everyone knows she's turning tricks. Hamo's wastrel son Dilovan (Ivan Franek) is happy to marry off his daughter (Astrik Avaguian) to a stranger if he thinks he can get a job out of it. ''Don't you miss the time when the Russians were still here?" Hamo asks an acquaintance. ''No, we didn't have freedom then," comes the response. Hamo: ''We had everything else!"

They still have a landscape of paralyzing natural beauty. ''Vodka Lemon" (named for the unprofitable drink stand at which Nina works) takes place in a sunny and blindingly white winter universe which filmmaker Saleem adorns with sly bits of surrealism. The film opens with a decrepit old musician being towed along a snow-clogged road in his hospital bed so he can play at a funeral; it ends with a piano ghosting mysteriously down a thawed-out highway. Tough, resilient folk music bangs away under many of the scenes, like the heartbeat of a survivor.

This is frostbitten Fellini -- a film that finds fresh beauty and contentment in the wake of centuries of conquering armies. The great joke of ''Vodka Lemon" is that the conquerors missed what was there all along.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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