Tangerines (2013) — Image via allfilm.ee

Tangerines

Directed by Zaza Urushadze (2013)

Art about the idiocy of war has been around almost as long as war itself. At this point, most of the most successful works in this genre focus not on finding something new to say but on finding new ways to make people feel it. Zaza Urushadze’s exceptionally well made, patient, and humane film Tangerines (Mandariinid) does just that. A look at ethnic conflict from the perspective of embedded outsiders, Urushadze’s film dramatizes both the war’s impact on them and their ability to make admittedly small inroads into the consciousness of the combatants.

Carpenter Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and tangerine grower Margus (Elmo Nüganen) are members of a small community of ethnic Estonians who have lived on the Black Sea coast of the contested Abkhazia region for more than 100 years. The year is 1992, and war has broken out between Abkhazian separatists and the government of newly independent Georgia. In response to the conflict, virtually all of Ivo and Margus’s compatriots have fled to Estonia. Margus, however, is determined to stay long enough to harvest and sell his tangerine crop, and Ivo is helping him by building crates to bring the fruit to market.

One day, a skirmish breaks out in the middle of the village between the occupants of two vehicles. From the wreckage, the two men rescue the gravely wounded Georgian actor-turned-soldier Niko (Misha Meskhi) and the less seriously wounded Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary who has come to fight on the side of the Abkhazians.

Tangerines (2013) — Image via allfilm.eeIvo, determined to nurse both men back to health, puts them up in two separate, locked bedrooms in his home. It’s a dangerous situation, as Ahmed and Niko have plenty of reasons to hate each other; Ahmed’s close friend from childhood was killed in the skirmish, while Niko, though less attached to his dead comrades, is a true believer in the Georgian cause who sees the mercenaries as subhuman invaders of his small country. But after forcing his two charges to take solemn vows not to kill each other in his home, Ivo subtly manipulates their machismo and pride to create circumstances in which they cannot help but begin to grudgingly respect each other.

Of course, this localized truce cannot last with war raging all around. Though the clever Ivo is able to hold the outside world at bay for a time, it is no surprise when the limits of his powers are revealed. But in the meantime, it is a pleasure to witness his small moral victories, his perseverance against the odds, and the small bits of hope and humor the four men are able to conjure up while awaiting their unknown fates.

The quiet, even-tempered, and determined Ivo is ultimately at the center of the film’s attention, and veteran actor Ulfsak does an excellent job of investing his character with shades of stubbornness, melancholy, and acceptance, all using relatively few words. Nakashidze also deserves praise for his portrayal of Ahmed, whose air of confidence never flags even as his perspective is forced to shift. Meanwhile, the landscape itself (filmed a couple hundred miles down the coast in uncontested Georgia) emerges as another major character under the gaze of cinematographer Rein Kotov’s camera. Altogether, Tangerines is a deeply felt, rewarding film that should attract a wider audience. It screens again Apr. 16 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.