Deep Focus: Tangerines
Most Western moviegoers think that Abkhazia was where the wizards kept their prison in the Harry Potter saga, but Tangerines, a potent, intimate war movie about this contested pocket of the former Soviet Union, has the emotional force and intelligence to break through apathy and ignorance.
A co-production of Georgia and Estonia (and the first Estonian film to be nominated for an Academy Award), it unfolds during unpredictable pitched battles between Georgian soldiers and Abkhaz separatist forces in 1992. The movie’s central figure, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), is a sexagenarian carpenter in a rural area whose residents, fearing random atrocities as well as “ethnic cleansing,” have returned to Estonia, their ancestral home. Ivo and his neighbor, Margus (Elmo Nüganen), a tangerine farmer, and Juhan (Raivo Trass), a doctor, are the only other Estonian holdouts (and Juhan leaves with his wife a third of the way through). Margus plans to exit once he harvests and sells his crop. Ivo helps him by building crates and picking fruit, but he aims to stay in Abkhazia, even after a firefight breaks out between Georgians and Chechen mercenaries employed by Abkhazia, right in front of Margus’s orchards. Ivo nurses the wounded survivors: one burly, bullet-headed Chechen, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze), who must recover from a body shot, and one shambling, baleful-eyed Georgian, Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), who almost dies from a shell fragment in his head.
Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze’s triumph is to extract a tough-minded, lucid, even gravely beautiful drama from this panorama of Eurasian chaos. His choice to put an Estonian at the center is inspired. It fuels a plague-on-all-your houses approach to a dispute that generated barbarities in every quarter. As Andrew Mueller, one of the few Western reporters to visit Abkhazia, writes in his book, I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong, “Abkhazia’s 1992-93 war with Georgia was as hideous as it was obscure . . . Human Rights Watch had declared both sides responsible for ‘gross violations of international humanitarian law.’” Up to 10,000 Abkhazians perished at a time when their population numbered perhaps 250,000. Roughly 300,000 ethnic Georgians fled the territory. So did other ethnic groups, like the Estonians.
The filmmaker’s decision to pit a Chechen mercenary instead of an Abkhazian against a Georgian soldier is both historically accurate and evocative. “Abkhazia’s eventual victory was achieved with the assistance of some dubious customers,” Mueller notes. “The Russian military joined in, as did a poetically named outfit called the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, an amalgamation of Islamist hillbillies from the region’s more ornery corners, notably Chechnya.” This jumble of racial, political, and religious attachments keeps Urushadze’s characters on their toes and his audiences guessing. When Margus says near the beginning that a major has offered troops to load his tangerines in carts, you can’t guess from which army.
With this volatile background, it would have been twisted for Tangerines to become a drippy fantasy about the brotherhood of man or a simplistic pacifist parable. Instead, it’s flavorful, sinewy, and replete with real-life contradictions, right up to the bitter and semisweet end. Urushadze manages to dramatize the central source of armed conflict in our time—the battle between rival nationalist forces over shared terrain—around the kitchen table of a man who disdains petty tribal allegiances. All the action occurs organically. It’s embedded in Ivo’s quiet determination to hold onto his home and moral sanity, and his refusal to let military forces breach his integrity, though they threaten to turn his and Margus’s tracts into a no-man’s-land.
No mere mouthpiece for the filmmaker, Ivo is a majestic character, rooted, sardonic, compassionate, and wary. Even more than the charged setup of enemies recuperating beneath one roof, Ivo’s personality draws an audience in. He may open his doors to men in need, but he’s savvy, private, and in his own way, territorial. He gets Ahmed and Nika to abstain from killing each other in his house, precisely because it is his house, and he’s their “savior” (as Ahmed puts it, sarcastically). Ivo is always straight with them, so the Chechen knows he means it when he says Abkhaz soldiers would kill him for harboring a Georgian (just as Georgians would for harboring an Abkhazian or Russian soldier or Chechen hired gun). But Ivo also keeps his distance from them. To him, they’re just “boys,” not merely because of their ages, but also because their patriotism is puerile—a weaponized version of “anything you can do, we can do better.” The older man proudly keeps a picture of his blossoming granddaughter in plain sight, but his guests must earn his trust before he reveals her name or anything else about her.
Lembit Ulfsak gives a greathearted performance. He’s a writer-director as well as an actor, and his presence alone, like Victor Sjöström’s in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, suggests a lifetime of experiences absorbed through the pores. Without any actorly giveaways, he conveys Ivo’s ability to address a person on different levels, according to his closeness and reliability. Ulfsak’s performance can also be spontaneous and visceral. The panicked widening of Ivo’s eyes when he sees a small explosion down the road puts across all the shock and violation of life during wartime. After Ivo, Margus, and Juhan push a wrecked Georgian combat vehicle down the hill and out of sight, Juhan says he was expecting it to ignite, the way it would go off in the movies. In one of several mordant, funny strokes, Ivo drily says: “The cinema is a big fraud.”
Tangerines is anything but. It’s the rare film that’s sensitizing as well as horrifying. Nothing human is taken for granted. When Ivo and Margus bury Georgian bodies, Margus, though fed up and weary, folds each man’s arms over his chest. At Ivo’s request, he checks their uniforms for papers that could identify the corpses for family members who may search for them. Nuganen creates a modified Sancho Panza character. Initially he seems semi-ridiculous as he frets over his crop, but he comes off wiser as the movie goes along. He sees the awful irony of killings so ruinous and bloody being nicknamed “The Citrus War.” (Who knew that Abkhazia had a climate that was friendly to tangerines and eucalyptus trees?) When musing that his orchards survive everything, including the armies that surround them, he could be an Estonian cousin to the Carl Sandburg who wrote, “I am the grass; I cover all.”
In fact, Urushadze is sharp as a carpenter’s tack with all the characters and actors. He renders the growth of grudging respect between Ahmed and Niko incrementally and believably. Nakhashidze’s Ahmed at first seems all aggression, and Meskhi’s Niko all passive-aggressive arrogance. Then both actors prove adept at the poking and prodding that leads these hard guys to understand each other.
As a writer-director, Urushadze has the vision to come up with lingering images—like Ivo’s long, sensitive hands guiding pieces of wood to a buzzing saw—and the taste and the film sense to pick them up again only when needed. It’s quietly devastating when we realize that the carpenter must go through the same process whether making tangerine crates or coffins. Even narrative details as unassuming as Niko’s attempt to repair his favorite audiocassette tape have apt and often unexpected payoffs. Visually, the film is alive with autumnal colors and textures that are vibrant and changeable. Urushadze and his cinematographer, Rein Kotov, capture how the setting sun can make trees burst into red-orange colors, and their images of mist and cloud hanging near Margus’s home are as memorable as the Maloja Snake in Clouds of Sils Maria.
Best of all, Urushadze’s embrace of humanity includes a healthy dose of mordant comedy. It reminded me of an Abkhazian joke from the Soviet era that Mueller recounts in his book: “The Russians launch a lunar mission. So, the first two Cosmonauts land on the moon. When they get there, to their surprise, they find an Abkhazian. They ask him, ‘What are you doing here?’ He replies, ‘I heard there was a funeral on.’” There are several impromptu funerals in Tangerines, but this movie is a cause for celebration.