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There are films that tear you limb from limb with their shrill bombast and flagrant moralizing, and then there are films like TANGERINES, that quietly break your heart with the folly of humankind. This year’s Oscar™ nominee for best foreign language film from Estonia is an anti-war statement of the first order, and one that celebrates the best in humanity as being the part of our contradictory nature that would triumph if only it were allowed to take root.
Set during the 1990 Georgian War, it eschews any specifics of the political situation that brought war to the rural home of Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an aging crate-maker, and his friend, Margus (Elmo Nuganen), whose pride and joy is his thriving tangerine grove. They are two of the three Estonians left in this part of Georgia, the rest having fled back to Estonia, even the ones born in Georgia, when hostilities broke out. The war, which has been slowly encroaching on the pair arrives in full force in the form of two wounded soldiers, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze), a Caucasian mercenary fighting for the Chechens, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), the Georgian soldier who killed Ahmed’s best friend and was, in turn, wounded when Ahmed and his friend killed the rest of Niko’s squad. Ivo shelters them both with equal compassion, and it is the force of his calm commitment to each of them that extracts from each of them a promise that they won’t kill each other under his roof. As the soldiers heal, squabble, and eventually settle into a touchy détente, Ivo sets about the pressing business of making the crates, while Margus waits for the promised soldiers who will harvest his crop.
Writer/director Zaza Urushadze never takes the audience further than the immediate area ofthat tangerine grove, setting most of the action in Ivo’s simple home. By doing so, the details of daily life, the comforting warmth of the familiar routines of making tea or playing checkers with a friend become the substance of reality, while the arbitrary borders and subjective interpretations of history that give rise to bloodshed are revealed to be so much smoke and mirrors. That the former can take lives despite its very artificiality becomes the ironic juxtaposition that Urushadze brings home with such brilliant clarity. Soaking the film in warm colors, and a score that evokes a melancholy spirit, but not a broken one, heightens the effect with a masterful subtlety.
Also subtle, but no less profound, is Urushadze’s conviction about the essential goodness of people allowed to put aside their prejudices. The way he has Ahmed and Niko come to terms with one another is neither trite, nor obvious. It sneaks up on everyone involved, starting with a gently posed question about the morality of killing an enemy who is unconscious. Matters progress from there both logically and emotionally, but fueled with the suspense borne of the natural suspicions of enemies trapped together, and of events over which they have no control suddenly intruding, and forcing them to choose sides all over again.
TANGERINES is rife with metaphors and with irony. The Estonians who nurture fruit-bearing trees, but have no roots themselves on the land that strangers, natives and mercenaries, are ravaging in the name of patriotism being the first among equals. Yet there is nothing precious about the film. The characters have a palpable authenticity suitable for their particular circumstances, and are brought to life with the sincerity of naturalistic performances from actors whose emotional resonance relies more on what happens between the words they are speaking than on anything as showy or contrived as melodrama. And it is that very normality that makes us invest so much emotionally in what happens to them, and to weep not just for them, but for us all.