Tangerines (2013) ☆☆☆(3/4): His house as a neutral zone

tangerines02“Tangerines”, a Georgian-Estonian film which was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film early in this year, is a small war fable accompanied with some humanistic messages to deliver. While its intention is apparent right from the beginning, it takes its time in building story and characters, and it simply lets us get its points for ourselves just like its wise, reticent hero, who subtly and gradually brings some common sense into two troublesome strangers staying in his house.

At the beginning, the movie draws our attention with its background details. When the civil war between the Georgian government and the Abkhaz Separatists began in 1992, many of Ethnic Estonians in Abkhazia fled to Estonia for safety, but Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an aging Estonian farmer, does not leave his rural village unlike many of his friends and neighbours. The village is almost empty now, and the war is still going on outside, but he does not seem to care much about that while continuing his daily life as usual.

We watch him carefully working on the wooden crates for a nearby orchard belonging to his close friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen), who also chooses to remain in the village just because he does not want to leave his tangerines unharvested. While Ivo is willing to help Margus as much as he can, it definitely takes more than two old guys to handle those thousands of tangerines ready to be harvested, and they can only hope that they will get some help from the outside although that does not look very possible in the current situation.

tangerines03And then the harsh reality of the ongoing war breaks into their small world on one day. A couple of Chechen mercenaries fighting with Abkhaz Separatists stop by Ivo’s house, and Ivo, who does not want any trouble, lets them take whatever they need from his house. Not long after these soldiers leave Ivo’s house, they happen to come across three Georgian soldiers riding on a van, and a shootout instantly happens near Margus’s residence. When Ivo comes to the scene, it is already over, and then he and Margus find that one of the Chechen soldiers, named Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), manages to survive alone while being injured during the shootout.

For avoiding any further trouble, Ivo and Margus promptly take care of the messy aftermath after taking Ahmed to Ivo’s house, but then they discover that one of the supposedly dead Georgian soldiers is actually alive, though he is not very well due to a serious injury on his head. He is also taken to Ivo’s house, and that is certainly not welcomed by Ahmed, who is angry about what happened as much as Niko (Mikheil Meskhi).

The first direct confrontation between these two opposing soldiers is not so friendly to say the least, but Ivo makes it very clear to both of them that he will not allow any act of violence in his house, and both Ahmed and Niko agree to this temporary cease-fire. Ahmed has already given his words to Ivo, and, as a devout Muslim with the sense of honor, he is not a guy who will change his words later. In case of Niko, he has no other choice mainly because his weak body, which has barely recovered from his injury, still has to depend on Ivo’s generosity.

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From this typical setting, we can clearly see where the story is heading to, but the movie thankfully does not resort to easy clichés. It instead observes how Ahmed and Niko get more accustomed to each other’s presence bit by bit with Ivo and Margus functioning as a sort of buffer between them, and we see how they slowly come to regard each other as a human being despite the distance remaining between them. During one scene, Ahmed helps maintaining Niko’s disguise when a group of local militia members drop by Ivo’s house, and the mood between Ahmed and Niko subsequently becomes more relaxed than before. Their neutral zone is expanded a little more later, and it looks probable that they can help Margus’s orchard work together.

The director/writer Zaza Urushadze, a Georgian filmmaker who got a career breakthrough with this film, steadily keeps the low-key tone of his story as drawing nice understated performance from his four main cast members. While Giorgi Nakashidze and Mikheil Meskhi complement well each other, Elmo Nüganen is amiable as a simple, good-natured man who cannot possibly imagine the life without what he has grown for years, and Lembit Ulfsak is quietly engaging as the calm, dependable center of the film. Although we merely get a few bits of information about Ivo’s private life including his absent granddaughter, Ulfsak effortlessly embodies many years of life experience in his plain appearance, and it is a small pleasure to watch how tactfully and patiently Ivo handles his two uninvited guests while never trying too hard on the surface.

I have some reservation on a sudden narrative turn around the third act, which may be inevitable but feels rather abrupt, and I think the movie could gone longer and deeper with what is established well with its story and characters, but “Tangerines” works on the whole thanks to good direction and fine performances. Compared to its fellow Oscar nominees including “Leviathan” (2014), “Wild Tales” (2014), “Timbuktu” (2014), and “Ida” (2013) (the last one won the award, by the way), it is the least impressive one of the bunch, but the movie has a sincere human story to tell, and it did its job mostly well.

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