A subtle film about brotherhood and tearing down the idea of “the enemy,” Tangerines (Mandariinid) is a beautifully shot meditation on what war means to soldiers on opposite sides when they are forced to take shelter together after being injured in battle. Even though it arrives in theaters rather late after its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign film, the cooled buzz about this film from Estonia should not deter those looking for quality cinema. As the hype wanes, what you are left with is a fantastic movie that should stand on its own as a quality work of deft storytelling resonant with humanistic concerns.
The film opens with a title card providing context to this war that one character calls “The Citrus War.” Events in the film take place in Georgia in 1992, not long after the fall of Soviet Russia. Many newly freed states saw conflict during this time. In this case, Estonian immigrants were forced out of Georgia during the ensuing conflicts between Georgians and Abkhazian separatists. Lembit Ulfsak plays Ivo, a carpenter from Estonia who has refused to leave his property in the lush Georgian countryside. He builds crates for his neighbor, tangerine farmer and fellow Estonian Margus (Elmo Nüganen). They are caught up in the timely harvest of the fruit with no one to help, as most Estonians have fled at this point in the conflict.
When a skirmish suddenly breaks out on their front yards, Ivo takes in two wounded soldiers from opposite sides. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a mercenary for the separatists, vows to kill the Georgian soldier Niko (Misha Meskhi), as soon as both are well enough to step outside Ivo’s house — Ahmed does not want to dishonor their host by killing his enemy under Ivo’s roof. This allows the men to get to know one another, and despite conversations often turning to the rhetorical righteousness for either side, a humanizing effect occurs. Though Niko and Ahmed seem at odds over everything, they are also like two brothers that have gotten on one another’s nerves.
Writer/director Zaza Urushadze takes his time to allow the tension to turn while the men are inhibited from fighting, patiently deflating their tiresome conversation to levels of absurd, ill-informed rhetoric. Early on, we know the primary concern of the plot lies with the harvest of the crop and not the war. In a sly redefinition of military, Ivo and Margus have been promised help by other soldiers to pick the crop. This speaks to the importance of the land as more than territory but a space for life-sustaining nourishment. There are also many affectionate wide shots of the country’s lush landscape beautifully lensed by Rein Kotov. Against many of these images is the melancholic instrumental music by Niaz Diasamidze, a Georgian musician who specializes in the panduri and pulls incredibly somber melodies out of the bowed instrument.
Like the land and fruit, music also matters above the fight in Tangerines. After he’s well enough to sit at the table, Niko spends much of his time repairing a cassette tape that was damaged in the skirmish. The mystery of the music on it will not be revealed until the film’s finale. In one scene where Niko is working on the tape, Ivo has tuned his radio in on a station featuring a frantically plucked zither. Niko asks Ivo to change the music because it’s “driving him crazy.” As Ivo gets up, Ahmed says “but I’m listening to it.” And Ivo sits down.
The relevance of music above the war is also wittily manifested by what isn’t translated from the radio. In this “war movie,” news of the war doesn’t matter as much as music. When Ivo and Ahmed turn on the radio, in two separate scenes, and tune it in to a news report, the subtitle only reads “War news on the radio.” Whether it was a creative decision by the director or not, it still serves to diminish the relevance of the war on this story. The specifics of what the radio announcer says about the war doesn’t matter as much as the music, be it the diegetic music that highlights the differences of the enemies or the extra-diegetic score by Diasamidze for setting the film’s somber mood.
But this is a violent setting, and indeed these men will be tested when war inevitably returns to their doorstep for a shocking finale that delivers the film’s message via a visceral confrontation. Urushadze never hints at his capability in staging the violent confrontation that closes this story of temporary peace during wartime. That he can add an impact to it via a humanizing character study speaks to the film’s use of violence in important narrative ways above exploitative entertainment value, but most of all, it offers a heart-breaking portrait of the dehumanizing randomness of war.
Tangerines runs 87 minutes, is in Estonian, Russian and Georgian with English subtitles and is not rated (expect wartime violence and cussing). It opened last Friday in our Miami area at the Tower Theater where it plays through Sunday and in nearby Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood where it plays through Thursday. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. All images are courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films, who also shared an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.