We get it. War is bad, m’kay. Sure, there are things to be said about honor and country and liberty, but when a war’s essence is characterized by two men slinging naughty words and tea cups at each other across a table…
Let me explain.
Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines is a humanist microcosm piece about the war in Abkhazia from 1992 to 1993. It was a brief but aggressive war of ethnic cleansing between Abkhaz separatists and Georgians. Right in the middle of the burgeoning battle are two Estonian farmers looking to cash in on an enormous crop of tangerines. Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is a carpenter, making crates for the tangerines all day. Ivo’s family left when the fighting broke out, and he’s staying behind, probably for the money but also for his stated love of land. He’s patient, wise, a little above it all when it comes to silly fighting. “It doesn’t make any difference,” he proclaims. How very World History college freshman of Ivo. Ivo works with Margus (Elmo Nüganen), the tangerine farmer. Together, their citrus could earn them a pass out of harm’s way.
But outside of Ivo and Margus’s home, a firefight occurs between Georgians and the Akhbaz. Two men are left alive. They’re on opposing sides. Ivo does the right thing, and takes them in, and what a startling psychological scenario: putting two wounded men that despise and want to murder each other in beds just feet apart. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) is a Russian mercenary working for the Akhbaz. He was shot in the shoulder. Niko (Mikheil Meskhi) is a young Georgian, with shrapnel in his head.
For a very obvious anti-war show, Tangerines still develops itself as a clever abstraction of the war genre. Pit two people against each at their weakest, in the home, and truths and emotions will certainly boil over. Ivo is judge, Margus is jury, and the two armed men are plaintiff and defendant. Even when the four are shouting in bromides, Tangerines isn’t any less gripping, or brutally honest. Sure, lessons are learned, and history is a little stripped from the proceedings, but at its core Tangerines is interested in four passionate men. Whether it’s a passion for peace, or simply bloodlust, Ahmed and Niko and Ivo and Margus make an otherwise reheated war story sizzle.
The Academy Award-nominated Tangerines is finally making a small run in theaters. It was a Best Foreign Language Picture nominee, and yet another film from last year’s crop to deal with country, identity, and a sense of displacement (Leviathan, Ida, and Timbuktu worked in similar themes). It’s the least of the bunch, and yet, it’s still a commendable nominee. Tangerines may be quite conspicuous in its approach and storytelling (or perhaps be better suited as a three-act play), but it doesn’t make Urushadze’s points any less salient. We know war is petty, we know it kills and divides, but Tangerines saddens us and makes us feel the pains of war, when it really counts.
On one final, truly nitpicky note: could someone like Criterion buy this from Samuel Goldwyn and re-do the subtitles? It’s obnoxious how stilted they read. When one of the four men turns on the radio, there’s likely some valuable context to be heard that’s paraphrased as simply “wartime news radio.” Repeatedly. Multiple lines get squeezed into long sentences with dashes, obscuring what might just be a dramatic pause. Or how about the film’s tendency to group together short lines that play out over a period of time? You’ll read Ivo’s lines three or four times before he’s done, and it hurts the drama of it all.