Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Zaza Urushadze
Stars: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nuganen, Girgi Nakashide, Misha Meskhi.
From acclaimed Estonian filmmaker Zaza Urushadze (Three Houses, etc) comes this Oscar nominated anti-war drama, set in the disputed territory of Abhazia during the war between Georgia and Chechen rebels in the early 1990s. Tangerines is a strong and provocative but very human look at the horrors of war, but it also looks at the futility of war, and the high toll conflict takes.
While the rest of his village flees to find safe refuge elsewhere, Ivo (played by Lembit Ulfsak) remains behind to harvest the tangerine crop, with the help of his neighbour Margus (Elmo Nuganen). Margus is keen to finish the harvest and make enough money so he can return home to his family in Estonia.
But when fighting erupts virtually on his doorstep, Ivo and Margus bury the dead soldiers. Ivo also helps nurse two wounded soldiers – the Chechen mercenary Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashide) and the Georgian Niko (Misha Meskhi) – back to health. Ivo is a gentle, pragmatic soul who is forced to act as a sort of referee as the two bitter enemies drink lots of tea, argue about their respective loyalties, and trade insults while slowly bonding. Although he desperately wants to avenge his dead comrades, Ahmed reluctantly agrees to refrain from killing Niko while he remains under Ivo’s roof. An uneasy truce settles over the house.
Tangerines is a subtle and slow paced film and largely dialogue driven, but it explores the complex conflict, ethnic and religious differences, the result of macho posturing, senseless bloodshed and violence in fairly even handed fashion. Urushadze seems to be saying that a lot of these conflicts could potentially be prevented through dialogue, having the opposing leaders sit down and talk through their problems, a heartfelt but possibly simplistic piece of wishful thinking.
Urushadze makes the most of his limited resources, giving this drama a more intimate feel. He also finds a deft balance between the serious conflict and some gentle humour. The performances of the main cast seem natural, while veteran actor Ulfsak, who resembles an Estonian Christopher Lee at times, brings gravitas and compassion to his role as the reluctant peacemaker. There is a palpable chemistry between the three main leads that also further heightens the tension of the situation.
Nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, Tangerines is a beautifully understated film that finds unexpected humanity in the midst of a bloody conflict. Niaz Diamaidz’s elegiac score heightens the mood. Veteran cinematographer Rein Kotov captures the rugged beauty of the landscape. He also captures the claustrophobic interiors of Ivo’s house, bringing a certain inescapable and slowly mounting sense of tension to the material.