Tangerines is the type of slow-builder that completely sneaks up on you. It’s like wandering through the fog of a spell until the magician snaps you back to reality. Director Zaza Urushadze has created a powerful anti-war statement without even raising his voice. War may be hell, but these characters call it home. Tangerines is an Oscar-nominated gem that showcases humanity at its horrifying worst and inspirational best.
It’s 1992 and the war is raging in Abkhazia. The rebel Abkhazians are battling to break free of Georgia, and a remote Estonian village is caught in the middle. Only two tangerine farmers remain in the long-deserted village. The first is Ivo (the great Lembit Ulfsak); a gentle old man who lovingly displays photos of his beautiful granddaughter on the mantle. He’s levelheaded, but indomitable. Every day he assembles rickety wooden crates in his “factory,” a dilapidated shed, determined to collect his tangerine harvest. Perhaps Ivo lost his own personal motivations and dreams many years ago, but he perseveres through his service to other people, including his fellow farmer, Margus (Elmo Nüganen).
Unlike Ivo, Margus yearns to return to his native Estonia. All he needs is one final harvest to finance his new business back home. Ivo helps him pick the plump tangerines, usually with a watchful eye to the well-traveled supply road in front of their houses. One day, just as Ivo feared, hostilities visit them. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary working for the Abkhazians, engages a Georgian convoy led by Niko (Misha Meskhi). Both men are shot up and left for dead. Ivo dutifully scoops these two enemy combatants into his home and begins the dangerous process of nursing them back to health.
The remainder of Urushadze’s powerful rumination on survival takes place in and around Ivo’s modest home. It’s so cold that you can see each actor’s breath, even as they stand by a roaring stove. The rugged Georgian landscape, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Rein Kotov, looks like it was hewn straight from the muddy earth. It’s not hard to see why everyone fled the area, as the dangers of sudden artillery and roving mercenaries clearly outweigh any reason to stay behind. Unless, of course, you are Ivo.
Ulfsak is masterful as the thoughtful Ivo, hunkered down in his doomed village against all logic. He won’t say why he refuses to leave, but it seems painfully clear that he has no one waiting for him back in Estonia. Ivo wants so desperately to believe in the goodness of man, that he insists upon believing the promises of two sworn enemies; Ahmed and Niko swear not to murder one another under Ivo’s roof. “There are people worth their word,” he tells a skeptical Margus. Abstaining from murder might seem like a small gesture of trust, but it means everything in the madness of war.
Tangerines is a delicate mixture of quiet tension and sudden outbursts. Even as Ahmed and Niko sip tea at Niko’s dinner table, quietly discussing the infallibility of their strategic position, you feel the murderous rage building inside them. Like two over-tightened springs, they wait for the chance to lash out at each other. Whenever a moment of frivolity passes between these characters, a moment of terror and sorrow is almost certain to follow. The result is a subtle story that builds over time; revealing the humanity of these two soldiers, not only to the audience, but to each other.
We’ve seen this story before, certainly, but never in such a stark, realistic way. Nothing is forced here. Everything unwinds in its own time, as if controlled by the methodical will of Ivo. We see these two enemies through his eyes, and we hope, just as he does, that Ahmed and Niko can reach an understanding. If they can recognize the humanity in one another, perhaps there is hope for entire nations to do the same.
It’s possible that less-patient viewers will find themselves a bit restless during Tangerines. There is gunfire and the occasional explosion, yes, but survival is not a glamorous business. It’s gritty and ugly. It takes endurance, along with a willingness to find the goodness in a rotten world. Director Zaza Urushadze rewards our patience with a story that manages to uplift our spirit while never taking the easy way out. Tangerines might be a small film, but it packs a surprising wallop.