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Tangerines

TANGERINES

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Zaza Urushadze

Cast: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, Misha Meskhi, Raivo Trass, 

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:27

Release Date: 4/17/15 (limited); 5/1/15 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 1, 2015

Tangerines is, through and through, an anti-war film. At this point, one probably will already have certain expectations about the film, and likely, most of them will be correct. Yes, it has a clear message that is asserted repeatedly. No, it does not take either side in the battle it depicts, unless one counts humanity as a side, which, of course, brings us back to the first point. Yes, it features people from opposing factions learning to see each other beyond their national, ethnic, and/or political affiliations. No, it does not end happily.

What's more important than the particular points the film hits, though, is how devoted it is to a stance of neutrality. It begins from the film's start, with a text preamble that gives us little information about the conflict at the film's heart. The prologue simply states that there is a battle in the territory of Abkhazia, but the focus is on the Estonians who have lived in the region for a century. Once "war broke out" (an oft-repeated phrase that, again, places no blame or responsibility or any kind of ownership in regards to the conflict), the majority of the Estonian population fled for their homeland. Only a few remained in Abkhazia.

The film's central figure is one of them. His name is Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an old man whose family has returned to Estonia. He remains behind to help his neighbor Margus (Elmo Nüganen), who owns a tangerine plantation, harvest as much of the season's crop as possible before the fighting arrives in their village. Both men, who are the only two people remaining in the village, confirm that they've heard rumors of soldiers approaching. It will only be a matter of days. Margus would—and knows he soon will have to—pity the loss of such a promising harvest, so he's staying until it is no longer safe.

Ivo, on the other hand, has no plans to leave his home in Abkhazia, even though the rest of his family has returned to Estonia. He has a reason but will not speak it.

Ivo loves this land, and he hates it, too. We don't know the kind of man he was before the conflict. Now, there is only a hollow, cynical shell that, nonetheless, is determined to find and preserve any form of basic human decency that might still exist in this desolate village, where the sounds of explosions and gunfire of a war of which he wants no part are getting closer each day.

This man is the one through whom writer/director Zaza Urushadze filters this tale of the War in Abkhazia, which began in 1992 and lasted for a little over a year. If one is unaware of the circumstances that led up to the conflict or its particulars, that person will not find it here. The politics of the war do not matter, because they do not matter to Ivo. Whether the Georgian government retains or the separatist forces gain control of this land, Ivo will stay there until he dies, and considering the circumstances, that could be a matter of days, not years or decades.

The war may as well be any other. The two sides might as well be some other pairing or collection of combatants. This isn't the story of this specific conflict. It's the story of lives that are interrupted by war—the innocent non-combatants who could be moments away from becoming collateral damage and the soldiers who leave their everyday lives to fight for a cause in which they believe. The film works not because of any kind of historical specificity but because of its ability to simplify.

The soldiers of note here are Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary who is fighting for the money that will support his family, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian soldier who joined the army because he believes in the cause. Ivo takes them both into his home after they are wounded in a skirmish outside of Margus' property.

Ahmed wants revenge against only survivor of the attack in which a man who was like his brother was killed. Niko wants Ahmed dead because he is the enemy. Ivo wants both men to promise that neither will kill the other while they're in his home, and since the old man saved their lives, the two men agree. They still threaten each other, bicker over music, and argue about the rightful possessor of this region, but in their shared respect for Ivo, their hostility toward each other gradually diminishes. They have more in common than they do not (All of the men speak the same language, and both soldiers are taken with a photo of Ivo's granddaughter).

Save for one sequence near the end, all of the violence in the film remains off-screen. Urushadze's concern is with the consequences of that violence. A group of Chechen mercenaries arrive, forcing the household to pretend Niko is one of them (Ahmed agrees to the charade because he wants to be the one to kill Niko), and the commander promises to help Margus harvest his tangerines. Later that night, artillery from the front lines reaches the village, and those men who were to help another man in his ordinary task are never seen again. When the violence does arrive, it is sudden and definitive. There's a devastating sense of finality in this sequence, which is heightened by Urushadze's previous restraint.

Yes, the message of Tangerines is perhaps naïve, and its approach is simplistic. We feel its impact, though, through these men who either have no stake in the fight or are on a temporary hiatus from it, and there's something about the way Urushadze sees the ability to empathize as a cure-all that, while hopelessly optimistic, is at least sincerely hopeful, too.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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