Rounding out the former Soviet bloc nominees for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is Tangerines, a co-production between Estonia and Georgia (officially, it’s only Estonia’s entry). Compared with Leviathan and Ida, there hasn’t been as much fanfare for this film, and it’s easy to see why. Tangerines occupies the middle ground between its two fellow Eastern bloc nominees—it’s neither philosophically epic like Leviathan nor highly artistic like Ida. Despite this, it holds its own in this field of contenders, though I predict its middling approach will unfortunately not be as popular amongst the Academy’s voters.
The film opens in the middle of the 1992-3 war between Russian-backed Abkhazia and Georgia (not the 2008 war, there was another one before that). We’re introduced to Ivo, an Estonian living in a rural village on Abkhaz territory (Estonia, Georgia, and Abkhazia were all part of the Soviet Union). Ivo makes wooden boxes for his fellow Estonian neighbor Margus, who needs them to store the tangerines he’s harvesting—this task is given an air of urgency given that fighting between pro-Abkhazian and Georgian forces is about to reach the village.
Despite all of Ivo and Margus’ haste, it may already be too late. A skirmish reaches Margus’ front door and in its wake lie dead troops from both sides. Two soldiers remain, injured but alive: Ahmed, a Chechen mercenary fighting for the Abkhazians, and Nika, a Georgian. Ivo takes the two enemies into his home, nursing them in separate rooms under a single roof. This creates a unique challenge — Ivo must keep both alive in spite of their injuries, each other, and the conflict that continues to rage on outside.
This plot, and the film as a whole, isn’t particularly innovative. As you could probably predict, Tangerines takes an implicitly anti-war stance and highlights the basic human commonalities that transcend warring allegiances and render conflict meaningless. Its messages about war are important and nuanced, but nothing new. There are films that approach the subject better, and many films that do a lot, lot worse. Tangerines defines itself with its simplicity, and this is both blessing and curse. It deploys time-worn tropes (bonding over family stories, jokes over a barbecue) effectively enough to keep them from becoming cliched, but using those tropes means that its style of simplicity doesn’t convey the same ethereal air evident in something like Ida or The Thin Red Line.
What I will strongly commend this film for is shedding an approachable light on a not so well-known conflict. The 1992-3 Abkhazian War is nowhere near the forefront of Western historical memory; any discussion of it has probably also been overshadowed by the 2008 Russo-Georgian War over both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Thus, using the 1992-3 conflict as its context gives Tangerines an automatic leg up in uniqueness whilst reminding others of the war’s existence. The film’s simplicity helps for this end as well. You don’t actually need to know too much about the war itself to viscerally understand Tangerines‘ messages and broader implications, but at the same time you get enough of a peek into the politics of the Caucasus to appreciate their complexity.
Nuance is another notable aspect of Tangerines. As I skimmed through its plot blurb, I immediately thought of another Georgian film, 2011’s Five Days of War (which is set within the 2008 Russo-Georgian War). Unlike Tangerines, Five Days was something reminiscent of overt political propaganda, an attempt by Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili (who’s played by Andy Garcia in that film) to drum up good American PR for his country and administration’s grievances. Critics almost universally panned Five Days of War, and it’s easy to see why; its cliches were forced, its jingoism sometimes laughable. Tangerines avoids such bombast and instead focuses on telling a delicate, valuable story.
Tangerines offers much in moderation. There’s cliches, but just enough to make some valuable points. There’s classic anti-war messages, but not enough to make dove-eyed hippies jump in pacifist joy. Unfortunately, moderation doesn’t usually win awards; exceptionalism suits itself better for that objective. I can’t say Tangerines is exceptional, but for a lighter take on a subject that could’ve plunged into dark abysses, it is worthwhile indeed.
Tangerines (Estonian: Mandariinid, Georgian: მანდარინები)–Estonia/Georgia. Directed by Zaza Urushadze. First released October 2013. Running time 1hr 23min. Starring Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Mikheil Meskhi, Giorgi Nakashidze, and Raivo Trass.