Film Review – Tangerines
A touching piece on humanity, Tangerines sends a message about peace without getting preachy. In 1990 war broke out in Georgia between local Apkhazians backed by Russia and Georgians. An area stuck in the crossfire was a section of the country lived in by Estonians who worked there, many who have now fled to Estonia to avoid the fighting. Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is an old man who has stayed behind and fills his days making boxes to help his friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen) pack up his tangerine crops. Margus plans to leave after selling these off and tries to talk Ivo into leaving with him. In the cross hairs of a random battle on the road these two find survivors of a fight, one is a Georgian named Niko (Misha Meshkhi), the other is a Chechen mercenary working for the Russians, Ahmed (Giorgi Makashidze).
Ahmed lost his best friend in the struggle and wants revenge and Niko hates Ahmed for simply the side he is fighting for and, as expected, they want to kill each other. Ivo will not have it and while they hate each other they have a sense of honor about Ivo saving them and agree to not kill each other in his home but make no promises after they have healed. This creates a situation that seems ripe for clichés about growing to love your enemy and seeing things from a different viewpoint.We are thankfully spared from going for the big moments of realizations and speech making and instead we have people stuck together seeing how things develop and never knowing exactly what will happen.
During the film an audience member noticed how much like children Ahmed and Niko are and the description is apt. They both proceed to goad and taunt to get a rise out of each other. Ivo steps in to lecture them and they apologize to Ivo for upsetting him. They even seem to have a bit of a rivalry by trying to get Ivo’s attention and be the “good” one for him. While we learn little about these two the intensity of their dislike is always on display. Ahmed is the more brutal one and makes no qualms about saying what he thinks but his sense of honor does make for him to be a barbarian with a code. Niko is more injured and is stuck responding more so to Ahmed but we see that he is more educated and sees things from an academic history of the area to define why he fights that is ignored by Ahmed.
Ivo is played with an interesting level of gravitas, old and stuck in his ways and has a great sense of humor. He delivers many great lines that cut the tension nicely and let us breathe in this rather unthinkable circumstance. What was nice was that he did little bits of dialogue about what he disliked about them wanting to kill each other without it becoming pontificating from the wise man who has seen it all talking down to everyone. He comes across as a man who is straightforward in what he believes and says what he thinks. Yet in those reactions he can go too far and he worries that he has been offensive and makes an effort to apologize and make things right. His reactions with Margus allowed him to be more human where you could sense the years of friendship between these two and how it is a source of pride in wanting to make this tangerine orchard profitable. They work hard and they want to see something come from it no matter what is going on around them.
Besides the two soldiers that want to kill each other there is a war going on and the randomness of what can happen in war is well portrayed. There is little warning before things change, be it troops coming through, a bombing, a shooting, or the tension of violence that is a specter over everything that happens. This is enhanced by some beautiful cinematography using close-ups to show the more normal things of life: making boxes on a wood cutter, the setting of the table. It creates an intimacy with the characters and the events that makes the world feel lived in and allows us to feel a sense of normalcy even when we know violence could occur at any moment.
When it comes down to it this is a movie about peace and finding respect for human life, and to be honest it didn’t occur to me that that was the message until very late in the film. Director Zaza Urushadze has so much going on with these characters that, while there is never a big eureka moment where all the problems are solved, the film feels more lived in by being around people where things can just happen. It allows its message to be more of a running background concept that lets you process its ideas as you bask in beautiful scenery, intriguing characters, and a compelling narrative.