“Tangerines,” Estonia’s Oscar-nominee for best foreign language film this past year, is a parable of peace set during the Georgian civil war. That’s when Muslim Chechnya declared its independence from Christian Georgia just after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
It is “The Citrus War,” Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) mutters. “They fight for the land where my tangerines grow.”
Ivo is Estonian, as is his neighbor and partner Margus (Elmo Nüganen). They haven’t fled the war because they have a bumper crop of fruit in their orchards. The elderly Ivo is building crates, Margus is picking away. And both are hoping to hire a few soldiers to get the tangerines picked and crated and sold off.
If only the fighting would let up. They’re removed from it, above it. Until a shootout leaves a wounded Muslim mercenary (Giorgi Nakashidze) and more badly-wounded Georgian (Misha Meskhi) stuck in Ivo’s remote farmhouse, recovering, threatening each other, just waiting for their health or their comrades to return so that they can finish things with each other.
Writer-director Zaza Urushadze maintains tension as we wait for the violence we know is coming. But his camera shares Ivo’s appreciation for the stark beauty of this Caucasian setting — fruit trees filled with huge tangerines, the foggy breath that says winter is coming to these rolling, greying hills. The actors are attired like the muddy roads, battered vehicles and guns of the bearded, unwashed and little-trained combatants.
Ahmed, the mercenary, prays and goads Niko. Niko, the Georgian, tries to get the tape back into a damaged cassette, a song from home. And Ivo, the foreigner, tries to keep the peace long enough to make his two bloodied patients see the senselessness of the war they’re fighting.
“Tangerines” is a simple tale, sharply drawn and smartly told, a portrait of a people, a place and a centuries-old conflict that this wise yet myopic citrus farmer cannot get his mind around any more than we can.
Cast: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, Misha Meskhi, Raivo Trass
Credits: Written and directed by Zaza Urushadze. A Samuel L. Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:27