by Kathie Smith
Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines—the first Estonian movie to be nominated for an Oscar—is an understated work of dichotomies, embracing both human levity and social malaise found in the face of war. Urushadze’s fourth feature unfurls a simple story in a common three act structure while nimbly alluding to current and past political complexities confronting individuals in our violent global village. Set in 1992, Tangerines focuses on two Estonians remaining in the hinterlands of the Abkhazia-Georgian region on the precipice of war—a simmering ethnic conflict that escalated after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The story might concentrate on isolated personalities in a specific moment in time, but it does not exist in a vacuum. Abkhazia is still a disputed region (also subtly highlighted in the Georgian-made, Oscar-shortlisted Corn Island), and the 1992 Russian-backed conflict against Georgia seems like eerie foreshadowing of Russia’s current aggression toward the former republics—a silent yet ubiquitous straw in Tangerines’ wind.
Director: Zaza Urushadze
Producer: Ivo Felt
Writer: Zaza Urushadze
Cinematographer: Rein Kotov
Editor: Alexander Kuranov
Music: Niaz Diasamidze
Cast: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, Misha Meskhi, Raivo Trass
Premiere: October 16, 2013 – Warsaw Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 17, 2015
US Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Within that wind are Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nüganen), who know that feuding factions are soon to be in their backyard, but Margus is casually determined to harvest as many tangerines as possible from his beloved grove—more on principle than real financial need—and Ivo seems to be hanging on to help. Their families and neighbors have moved back to their homeland, but these two men stubbornly remain with an educated guess of when troops will arrive. Both Ivo and Margus seem to harbor deep-seeded reasons for staying (beyond a truckload of tangerines), defying the real necessity to leave the area as gunfire echoes on their backdoor. Perhaps Georgia is the only home they have ever known or perhaps there were reasons why their families left them behind—ambiguities that give Tangerines veritable human texture.
The grey-bearded Ivo is making crates for Margus’ tangerines when a couple of Chechen mercenaries supporting the Abkhazian separatist movement pull up to inspect his activities, lean on him for a little food and liquor, and gauge his loyalties. Ivo, unflappable and clearly wise beyond these young soldiers’ years, brushes off their insinuations that he might be working for the Georgians and leads them into his house to give them half a loaf of bread and a bottle of grain alcohol from a pretty spare cupboard. Any inclination of sycophancy on Ivo’s part vanishes when his stern paternal voice scolds one of the soldiers for ogling a photo of his granddaughter—“Don’t comment. Don’t you dare.”—with such force that immediately earns respect from these ruffians for hire. The two men leave with Ivo and Margus’ neutrality confirmed but also with an unsympathetic warning that neutrality won’t matter soon.
Ivo and Margus are left to strategize the tangerine harvest (yet, oddly enough, not their exodus) with plans on recruiting some local soldiers before all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately, the fight lands on their front doorstep sooner rather than later as a stray group of Georgian soldiers meet up with the two Chechens who were at Ivo’s house just hours before. One of the Chechens, Ahmed, is badly wounded but alive, as is one of the Georgians, Niko. Ivo takes it upon himself to nurse both the men back to health—two enemies under his roof and his grandfatherly management. As the two men heal, their desire to kill one another escalates, but Ivo’s rigid yet compassionate pacifism keeps tempers under check, forcing tolerance on two soldiers trained to have none.
As the days pass, the lessons learned among these four men—two neutral but conflicted Estonians, a gruff Chechen gun for hire, and a Georgian forced to arms—are neither surprising nor original, even if some of the minor plotlines are. Instead, Tangerines is grounded by the subtle direction of Urushadze and the understated performances of Giorgi Nakashidze as Ahmed and Ulfsak as Ivo, their strong wills soldered by their charisma. Ulfsak, who nearly carries the film, emits an aura of sadness and resolve as Ivo, and hidden underneath that an emotional mystery as to what keeps him from joining his family in Estonia. As for the approaching war and inherent dangers, Ulfsak silently conveys that Ivo has nothing to lose but his own dignity, which he hangs onto even in the face of death.
To say that Tangerines offers a sublime alternative to Hollywood blockbusters would be a foregone (if not lazy) proclamation to make, had Urushadze not alluded to such intentions. About a third of the way through the movie Ivo and Margus push the Georgian’s jeep down a steep hill to hide the evidence of the clash. It lumbers down the slope, getting caught up on branches before uneventfully settling halfway down. Margus is disappointed, hoping to see a dramatic explosion like in the movies. Without missing a beat, Ivo says, “Cinema is a big fraud.” It’s pretty clear that Urushadze is not commenting on his own work, but on popular trends that he and filmmakers like him have to fight against to get noticed. (Look at top grossing movies for Estonia on any given year and you will find Hollywood exports almost exclusively in the top 20—a frustrating reality for the decreasing role of national cinema.) An Oscar nomination for Tangerines offers a small but important vote of confidence for sincerity in cineplexes and a well-deserved victory for a modest slice of cinema.