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'Tangerines' Is An Intimate Portrait Of The Toll Of War

courtesy of Allfilm

In 1992, tribal war broke out between Georgia and Russian-supported Abkhazia in the Caucasus. More than 100 years earlier, ethnic Estonians had settled in the area, but that '92 conflict forced most of their descendants to go back to Estonia.

The new movie Tangerines, a 2015 nominee for Best Foreign Language Picture, is about two Estonian men who remain in their war torn village.

Gray-haired Ivo lives in a small home nested among rolling hills and forest. He makes wooden crates for the tangerines grown by his neighbor Margus. The two will probably leave for Estonia after the harvest, but while the trees are heavy with fruit, Chechen mercenaries harass Ivo, and right after that they're attacked by Georgians. One Chechen and one Georgian survive but are wounded. Ivo and Margus bring both into Ivo's house. They're too damaged to attack each other, but they'd like to.

Writer and director Zaza Urushadze filmed Tangerines in flat light under gray skies. Bright sunlight never breaks through, but what does come alive are the remarkable, vivid greens of trees and grass, the soft colors of wooden buildings, stone and brick, and the nearly triumphant orange of the tangerines. Ivo and Margus move comfortably through their wonderful landscape – it's their home – and when Ivo goes looking for Margus, he usually finds his friend up in a tree, picking his beloved tangerines.

Ivo's home grows right out of its natural world. There's a beautiful wood stove. Dishes kept in a graceful wooden cupboard with leaded glass fronts. When he sits in a chair you realize that the simple chair is also finely made. When Ivo makes his wooden crates, his hands are precise and gentle with tools and materials.

With people, Ivo shows the same grace and harmony. He speaks softly. When Achmed, the Chechen soldier, wants to kill Nika the Georgian, Ivo gently dissuades him, gets him back in bed and makes him promise that he will not kill his enemy in Ivo's home. It's a start.

There's no mystery to where Tangerines is going. It's obvious that people have become addicted to hatred and killing, but the film rearranges the loyalties; human contact disrupts the pathways of mindless animosities and makes the film's disgust with war palpable and touching.

There's a long tradition in films from the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries that pits common sense and human decency against ideology and the absurd logic of conflict and war. Inside Ivo's house, Ivo and Margus nurse the wounded men back to health. When Ivo finds the Chechen who's collapsed on the floor, holding a long kitchen knife, while trying to murder Nika, the sight doesn't make you think commitment to the cause or heroism; it's pathetic. He wants to kill the Georgian simply from perverse habit.

When people sit at a table together, share food, and drink tea, hatred gets hard to summon. All four of these men speak the same language, and they all look alike. No one can tell by sight whether someone is Georgian, Chechen or Estonian. The two fighters begin to respect each other. The Muslim Chechen closes the door to his room when he prays; the Georgian covers his crucifix inside his shirt. Their ideas about what's real and what matters reverse polarities.

There are no women in Tangerines. Ivo has pictures of women on his wall, and the various soldiers who come and go leer at the photo of Ivo's beautiful granddaughter. The war has driven the women away and left the men brutal and incomplete. It's become a disintegrated society without grace or warmth. No one has the ability to care about the wonderful cabinets and furniture probably made by Ivo.

There's also something else phoney about the war itself – it was fomented by outsiders and obviously parallels the situation in Ukraine right now. Yet, no matter how much the two soldiers in Ivo's home overcome stupid hostility, Tangerines offers little hope for larger change.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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