A NOMINEE early this year for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Zaza Urushadze’s anti-war drama Tangerines works not just as a solid insight into the notions of conflict but also an interesting history lesson.
Set during the War in Abkhazia of 1992-1993, the film begins with a disclaimer explaining how Estonian civilians returned to their native areas as the conflict in the area unfolded.
Two farmers Ivo and Margus (Lembit Ulfsak and Elmo Nuganen) remain to tend to the tangerine crop, aware of the potential dangers they face.
Nearby the men’s homes, a brief fight between the Chechen and Georgian rivals results in only two survivors, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), each from opposing sides. Both are taken in by Ivo, but the escalating tension between the two men as each recovers begins to show, with Ivo caught up in between as reluctant meditator.
The vows from each men to kill one another when the opportunity arises are made clearer as time progresses, but with Ivo’s peacekeeping attitude, the hopes for a potential union becomes a possibility, as the war comes closer to home.
While watching this film, one felt reminded of Denis Tanovic’s Oscar-winning No Man’s Land, another anti-war work dealing with the aspects of conflict and opposing sides stuck in one another’s company.
Tangerines has similar themes in that Ahmed and Niko are stuck with each other and the usage of two men with genuine hatred for one another and willingness to kill each other, yet somehow unable to, makes for unpredictable yet tense viewing.
Looking at each of the men’s plights, one looks at their predicament as a potential means to see if their views of each other will change and the main character of Ivo is the driving force for that. He acts in a way as a surrogate father with the soldiers portrayed as warring surrogate brothers.
Occasionally, the picture of Ivo’s granddaughter that lies in the house is shown and grabs the attention of Niko who becomes besotted with her image. Whenever the topic of her is bought up, he politely but sternly refuses any conversation about her, suggesting a past that could explain his understanding desire for peace.
By bringing in this background study of the character, it allows the focus of the film to not just rely on the warring soldiers but bring a balanced placing of the role of the protector.
Ulfsak brings a sombre sense with his performance as the man who accepts his actions might not work when they recover and leave, but at the least will protect both from each other while they are in his house.
It works successfully as a character study that allows civilians and soldiers to explain their lives and create a balance between the two rival soldiers whose plights become more sympathetic as the film continues. One is not sure if the tension between Ahmed and Niko will dissolve but anything is a possibility in this film where character arc is mixed with scenes of genuine tension.
In one scene deserving of praise for its character study, Niko explains how he was an actor before he volunteered as a soldier. It is expressing the differences between the lives of others both before and after the conflict that makes the film succeed at delivering its message that war does not have to be the answer.
Looking at what the conflicts featured result in by the end, the film allowing the viewer to join in the debate as to what war really achieves and whether it is worth the real price.
The climactic conclusion is one that may have a notion of inevitability but is structured with an energy that makes the viewer feel genuinely nervous for the four key characters caught up in it, given the time spent becoming familiarised with them.
Tangerines is both a success as a character study and as an anti-war drama for which the Academy must be thanked for nominating this year in granting it an audience wider than what it would have been without.