Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tangerines Movie Review

Update 21 April 2015: This film was released commercially in the United States on 17 April 2015.

This film has not yet been released commercially in the United States.

Anti-war movies so often fail at being effectively anti-war because any depiction of fighting, violence, brutality, or death inherently glorifies it by making it sensational. One of the best anti-war movies I can recall is Danis Tanovic’s Oscar-winning No Man’s Land which featured virtually no fighting at all but was about two wounded soldiers from opposing sides in the Bosnian War stuck in the tract of land between the lines. It was about the absurdity and ineffectiveness of war and the need for human understanding in conflict. No Man’s Land was the movie I thought of most often during Tangerines, one of this year’s nominees for the award that Tanovic’s film won.


Tangerines is an Estonian film written and directed by Zaza Urushadze set in the Abkhazia region of Georgia during the war between the two sides in 1992. Small Estonian villages were caught in the crossfire of the conflict between Georgian military and Abkhaz separatist fighters. The movie picks up after the majority of the Estonians (who had been there for three generations) had already fled. A few holdouts remain, including Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an older man who harvests the citrus fruit of the title along with his neighbor and friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen). Ivo’s granddaughter has already departed and Margus plans to also after the latest harvest, but Ivo has no intention of leaving his home.

A small skirmish in front of their houses leaves two wounded men. Niko (Misha Meskhi) is Georgian and Ahmed (Giorgi Nakaschidze) is a Chechen mercenary hired to fight on the Abkhaz side. Ivo takes both men into his home to care for them until their wounds heal. Ahmed continues to swear he will kill the other man, first saying he will do it as soon as he can, then that he will wait until Niko can walk again, then promising Ivo that he won’t harm him in his home. He keeps moving the goal post as his humanity is brought back into focus by living under one roof with Niko. Even when they are outside together, Ahmed’s excuse for not attacking is that he doesn’t feel up to it, but will do it another day.

As the men heal, you sense that something terrible must be coming. There’s a war on nearby and here we have two men who hate each other for no reason other than that they happen to fight for opposing sides in a conflict, the source of which neither man can fully verbalize. The arrival of a small unit of mercenary fighters arrives at Ivo’s house. Niko has to pass for Ahmed’s comrade, unable to speak due to his head wound. What must it be like for Niko to shake his enemies’ hands as they congratulate him for the false story of his killing Georgian soldiers?

Ultimately Urushadze makes a few facile points about the absurdity of war that don’t really amount to anything like a substantial commentary. The film wraps up in a conclusion that isn’t exactly nihilistic, but just kind of whacks you bluntly with its message. It’s probably true that any conflict mellows when opposing sides sit at a table together. It becomes much harder to kill a man whom you’ve broken bread with. But there’s naiveté in the belief that war can be avoided similarly. Yes, war is awful. It tears families and communities apart. Often it can and should be averted, but it’s also sometimes necessary.

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