Hating each other murderously, two soldiers on opposite sides in a civil war become human again when sheltered by a compassionate carpenter. Simplistic that may sound, but writer-director Zaza Urushadze tells this story with nuance, poetry and poignancy in “Tangerines,” an Estonian drama.
A tragic fable with some Chekhovian human comedy sprinkled throughout, this Oscar-nominated Russian-language release both expresses a cynical view of our war-making species and presents an uplifting scenario in which humanity, at least briefly, prevails. Also a site-specific dip into history, the 1992-set story transpires in Abkhazia, a territory seeking to separate from post-Soviet Georgia.
Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), a grandfather, carpenter and ethnic Estonian, hasn’t fled from war-plagued Abkhazia. He has stayed behind to build crates that his neighbor Margus (Elmo Nuganen), an Estonian farmer, needs for his tangerines.
The war invades the lives of these peaceful men when a shootout leaves corpses near Margus’ orchard. Burying the bodies, Ivo and Margus discover two wounded survivors – Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze), a Muslim Chechen mercenary fighting with the Abkhazians, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Christian Georgian.
Ivo lets them recuperate in his home.
Ahmed recovers first. Bent on avenging the death of his Chechen comrades, he aims to knife the Georgian Niko while he sleeps. Niko, when back on his feet, harbors similar hostilities toward Ahmed. It takes the calm, conciliatory Ivo, and a pledge he extracts from both soldiers, to keep them from killing each other.
As their stay continues, the soldiers exchange antagonistic glances while Ivo makes tea and maintains the peace. Margus laments the fate of his tangerines, citrus victims of war. Knocks on the door from visiting soldiers punctuate the claustrophobic scene. Slowly, Niko and Ahmed shelve their differences.
That’s about all there is to this 89-minute story, which, being too slight, isn’t a knockout in the realm of antiwar cinema. Urushadze does nothing special with the truism that war is inhuman and warps one’s sense of decency.
But his filmmaking is accomplished, and strong, nuanced performances in sync with his humanism make this movie a touching, relevant parable about war, peace and kindness. Each character reveals new shades as the story progresses. Characters who initially seem merely symbolic move and surprise us.
Urushadze keeps the tension constant. Like his characters, we are anxiously aware that the next knock on the door could spell death.
Leading an impressive cast, Ulfsak, an accoladed Estonian actor, is quietly commanding as the war-weary, heroic Ivo. His scenes with Nakhashidze’s charismatic Ahmed, who reveals hidden decency, are fascinating as the two become unlikely friends.
The juxtaposition of natural vistas and war activity have an obligatory feel, but the sight of the landscape dotted with orange tangerines is indeed pleasing.
Starring: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nuganen, Giorgi Nakhashidze, Mikheil Meskhi
Written and directed by: Zaza Urushadze
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes