Movie review: 'Tangerines'

This antiwar fable, set in the former Soviet Union, was an Oscar nominee.

Updated 5/1/2015

The time is 1992, the news the collapse of the Soviet Union. The location is Abkhazia, a place of beaches, lovely forested hills and citrus orchards. It is set against the Black Sea on the northwest corner of Georgia, and not yet independent from that republic. Abkhaz secessionists hire mercenary Chechens to help their bloody fight for separatism.

In the touching antiwar drama “Tangerines” from writer/director Zaza Urushadze, it is not a conflict everyone is eager to join.

Some locals avoid the trouble as best they can. Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), a benevolent old Estonian immigrant uninterested in politics, is inclined to help the needy no matter which side they support. His first charity case is nursing Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen soldier wounded in a clash near his farmside home. While digging graves for the other victims, he discovers that a Georgian fighter, Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), is not entirely dead, either.

He, too, needs treatment. Although the survivors loathe one another, they pledge to Ivo that they will not kill each other, at least not as long as they are sharing his hospitality. In the meantime they brickbat each other continually, vociferous Niko treating Ahmed like a redneck dimwit while Ahmed tosses homophobic insults at Niko. They’re not the only ones facing challenges. Ivo’s friend Margus (Elmo Nuganen), who runs the farm next door, faces a disastrous tangerine crop with no field hands to harvest.

It’s understandable why “Tangerines” became a nominee for last year’s best foreign language Oscar. The acting is solid; Ulfsak is ideally cast as the easygoing, timeworn woodworker. This sort of solid old-school filmmaking, concerned with social life and the dramatic conflicts that underlie it, is always at the top of the industry’s prize competition, and rightly so.

It shows the two grown soldiers behaving as if they were sparring schoolchildren, fighting in a war for goals they have almost comically lost track of. Ivo requires them to tolerate each other for as long as they occupy his single room, valuing them much as Margus tends to his seasonal pickings. Over time their religious and ethnic prejudices fade.

Urushadze’s humanist take shows them slowly moving beyond revenge-fueled strangers to comrades in the harvest. The film suggests that some men trained to murder one another in cold blood though they have no personal quarrel can evolve beyond. Of course, passing that kind of acceptance to the outside world is a much bigger challenge. Petty, trivial political matters seem to outlive dinosaurs.

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