A somber parable about the destructive effects of war and what a shared humanity might be able to do to overcome them, Tangerines is an example of lean, unadorned old-school filmmaking where familiar style and technique combine to unexpectedly potent effect because of the great skill with which they’ve been employed.
Written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, the Oscar-nominated Tangerines makes its timeless points by focusing on a particular European conflict, barely noticed in the U.S., that began in 1992.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazians who lived in the western part of Georgia declared their independence and a civil war began, with Russia siding with the Abkhazians and even encouraging mercenaries to fight against the Georgians.
Caught in the middle of this nightmare was a community of Estonians that had lived in this part of the world for more than 100 years. Once hostilities broke out, most Estonians felt they had no choice but to return to their country, but not everyone went.
Tangerines begins with one such reluctant Estonian, Ivo, introduced as he’s carefully cutting pieces of wood to make crates. Effectively played by veteran Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak, Ivo is gray-bearded but resolute, a man of strong character who looks like a biblical patriarch and believes unequivocally in moral rules.
Ivo is making these crates for his neighbor and fellow Estonian Margus (Elmo Nuganen) and his thriving tangerine orchard. It’s overloaded with fruit that should be picked as soon as possible, an activity the civil war is making problematic.
Soon, however, both men have problems more serious than the potential loss of a crop. First, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary fighting with the Abkhazians, rousts Ivo and demands food for himself and a friend. Though he calls him Grandpa, Ahmed seems to instinctively respect Ivo’s character, telling him “it’s a shame brave men like you get old.”
When Ahmed leaves, Ivo expects never to see him again, but fate intervenes. A brief skirmish with a group loyal to Georgia leaves Ahmed’s friend as well as most of the Georgians dead. Ahmed, however, survives, as does one of his opponents, a young Georgian named Niko (Mikhail Meskhi).
With Margus’ help, Ivo puts each wounded man in a separate room in his house. As they recover, however, Ahmed and Niko are each consumed with the desire to take the other’s life. Animated by hostility, needling each other verbally because they lack the strength for more extreme action, they offer sad proof of the durability of ethnic animosities even among people who barely know each other.
Tangerines is an intensely masculine story in which not so much as a single woman appears on-screen. Filmmaker Urushadze employs a deliberate pace and a melancholy tone to make his points and allow this convincing film to have its way with you.
Cast: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nuganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, Misha Meskhi.
Writer-director: Zaza Urushade.
A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Running time: 87 minutes. In Estonian, Russian and Georgian with English subtitles. Graphic violence. In Miami-Dade: Tower; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood; in Palm Beach: Living Room.