‘I saved you both and I will kill as well.’
Tangerines is a film that is both wonderfully crafted and carefully paced, enhanced by strong performances, which combines situation and story with its character development. It’s a story that aims to show us how decency abides during treacherous times, where the protagonists might think they know how to treat their enemies, at least in principle, but cannot be sure. Funded and backed predominantly by the film institutes of both Georgia and Estonia and with a story based on events that are set in recent memory, Tangerines was nominated for best foreign language picture Oscar in 2015. It is a compelling watch, well acted and convincing in its development of character and situation as an increasingly problematic narrative unfolds. Tense drama set during a war, this is about survival of purpose and humanity, something that is inherently difficult to achieve in savage and violent times.
In 1992 the Soviet Union has broken up and war in Azkhabia has broken out. Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) has sent his family to the safety, he hopes, of his homeland Estonia, because the conflict in Georgia is becoming increasingly fraught with nationalistic and territorial skirmishes occurring with alarming regularity. The Georgians are fighting Abkhaz separatists who are supported by mercenaries, and the militias on both sides attack each other without thought or mercy. Ivo remains in his home and fells wood to manufacture crates which are to be filled with a harvest of tangerines that his friend and neighbour Margus (Elmo Nüganen) is frantically picking in order to provide them with some income. But war is unpredictable and one day rival sides engage in brutal conflict with guns and mortars right outside their homes; almost all combatants are killed. However Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) survives and Ivo agrees to allow this bombastic soldier to recover from his wounds inside his house. Ivo and Margus decide to bury the remaining dead – ‘mere boys’ – to hide evidence of any conflict from further militia who might pass by. But on digging a grave they discover that one soldier is actually alive and Ivo takes him into his home as well, in order to recover from the bullet wound in his head. ‘The Chechnian will heal in a week, the Georgian I don’t know,’ he states pragmatically. The Georgian is Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), the enemy of Ahmed, who, when he finds out about the new resident, wants to fulfil his military duty and kill him, an act that Ivo and Margus desperately attempt to prevent, eventually convincing Ahmed to make a promise that he will not kill his foe inside the house. But physical recovery, despite the savagery of both men’s injuries, is a less complicated process than the healing of emotional and ideological wounds. Promises need to be kept if there is any chance of resolution for any of the four men.
Throughout the film a photograph of Ivo’s granddaughter, Mari, now residing in Estonia for her safety, is a recurring image. This photo keeps Ivo’s memories of his family alive but the picture of a beautiful young woman also appeals to the injured men who have shunned normal civilian life in order to go to war and the photo becomes a catalyst which triggers some of the conversations between the men. Ivo, an elderly man with no involvement in the conflict, finds himself in the position of inadvertent peacemaker – insisting that these bitter rivals treat each other with respect and dignity – at least within his house. He is a compassionate man who recognises that both of the injured men cannot remain in his care without proper medical supervision. But when they call in the local doctor for medical advice Dr. Juhan (Raivo Trass) offers additional counsel to the Estonians: ‘Sell your tangerines and go’, emphasising the futility of this terrible situation and reinforcing the moral implications that will result from the decisions that they all must make. So the old and the young, idealists and pragmatists, Estonians and Georgians, Christians and Muslims either continue with their prejudices or develop a sense of understanding and compassion. And these qualities demonstrate Tangerines’ fundamental theme. For amidst the scenes of shock and warfare their humanity emerges in a manner that is entirely believable; as those seeking retribution are forced to try to come to terms with their preconceptions, view their enemies as human beings and resolve their own internal conflicts amidst the enforced propaganda.
Essentially four person drama set in a restricted location, Tangerines is a film about relationships old and new set in circumstances that sees friends become rivals and civilians victims to accident and atrocity. It is a film that, for all the hate and hurtful behaviour -and occasionally shocking scenes of conflict – depicted, offers hope and humanity amidst the ferocious ideologies. The pick of the crop, Tangerines is a moving and very human drama. Highly recommended.