Cinematic stories of war come in many different narrative forms. Some focus on the physical destruction of the battlefield, while others emphasize the lingering emotional and psychological impact of the conflict. Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines mainly falls in latter description, examining how a brutal war affects four men in a small village.
Tangerines takes place during the War in Abkhazia, where Abkhazian separatists (aided by North Caucasians and Russians) fight for independence from Georgia. In an Estonian village not too far from the front line, an old man named Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and his neighbor Markus (Elmo Nüganen) are two of its last remaining inhabitants. While others have fled, they remain to harvest Markus’ crop of tangerines, which are then put into crates made by Ivo. The war rages on however and one day, the fighting reaches their doorsteps. After one fateful battle, two injured men from opposing sides are taken in by Ivo. Their hot tempers are kept in check however, as the men agree to Ivo’s peaceful terms out of respect for his age and compassion.
All of the film’s “action” happens within Ivo’s home and its environs. As the soldiers gradually recuperate, the character-driven screenplay allows the actors to enrich the narrative with their individual perspectives. In particular, the dialogue between the soldiers conveys their individual prejudices as well as some of the history of the relations between the war’s belligerents.
Though these two men want nothing more than to kill each other, they are grounded by Ivo. Lembit Ulfsak is excellent as this makeshift mediator, playing his character with clear-eyed honesty and wisdom. Though he didn’t fight, Ivo has been personally affected by the war and Ulfask’s performance taps into this unique balance of world-weary sadness and gentle optimism. He’s so effective that one never needs to question the realism of the burgeoning camaraderie he fosters.
Despite the humane nature of this central character however, Urushadze’s script never crosses over into naivety. Though the story is mainly about finding common ground between fierce enemies, the harsh reality of violent conflict is always a threat. As emphasized throughout the film, the only certainty in war is death. Whenever other soldiers come to interrupt the tranquility of the setting then, the tense atmosphere they bring is like the Grim Reaper coming to collect.
Indeed, underneath all the justification of personal grudges and political agendas, the main travesty is the unnecessary loss of human life and the shattering of families and communities. As the plot takes its tragic detours from the central oasis of its premise, it’s this cruel sense of inevitable suffering that truly stings. As such, the film’s few warfare scenes pack a devastating blow.
There’s a simplicity to the modest scope of Tangerines, but it’s this same quality that makes the film so poignant. Its pacifist message is presented with such plain subtlety that it becomes almost self-evident. This delicate examination of humanity during wartime is an impressive, affecting achievement.
Tangerines is the Estonian submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.