Two Estonian immigrants get caught up in the conflict between Georgian and Chechen forces. A touching anti-war story about solitude, hate and reconciliation. The first Estonian feature film to be nominated for an Oscar.
It’s 1992 and war has come to Abkhazia, but that won’t shift Ivo (Lembit Ulfsaf) who has chosen to stay, making boxes for the tangerines harvested by his neighbour Margus (Elmo Nuganen). The core drama kicks off following a nearby battle between Georgian soldiers and the Abkhazian separatists. Two wounded survivors, one from each faction, end up taking shelter with the unshakable Ivo. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze), a furious Chechen, still seems intent on doing away with Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), the Georgian, but our hero manages to convince them to suspend hostilities while under his protection. Various allegorical tensions simmer while Ivo goes about his ancient business. As the war impinges, the tense conversations over cups of tea give way to bursts of action. Estonia deservedly secured its first Oscar nomination for this consistently humane war drama. Tangerines’ central plea – why can’t we all just get along? – is hardly novel, and the plot relies on more convenience and contrivance than we might wish. But, for all that, Tangerines manages to achieve a kind of stubborn grace. The actors deliver the finely balanced dialogue with a sincerity that kicks aside all intimations of banality. Rein Kotov’s cinematography is alive to rich landscape and richer faces. Zaza Urushadze’s feature fits into a tradition of antiwar narratives that stretches through Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation back to RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End. Like those pieces, Tangerines is intent on locating the personal tragedies in political conflict. The film also carries traces of the rural folk cinema that attracts the eye of Academy voters when polling day looms. Those faultless performances make something special of the material. Many will find it disconcerting to be reminded of the many conflicts (some now forgotten outside the former war zones) that blew up following the fall of the Soviet empire. Worth cherishing.
Tara Brady, The Irish Times, September 17 2015
The selection of the Estonian film "Tangerines" as one of the five foreign language Oscar nominees for 2014 came as something of a surprise, but now that the movie is in theaters it's easy to see why the academy judges responded so strongly. A somber parable about the destructive effects of war and what a shared humanity might be able to do to overcome them, "Tangerines" is an example of lean, unadorned old-school filmmaking where familiar style and technique combine to unexpectedly potent effect because of the great skill with which they've been employed. Written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, "Tangerines" makes its timeless points by focusing on a particular European conflict, barely noticed in this country, that began in 1992. As the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazians who lived in the western part of Georgia declared their independence and a civil war began, with Russia siding with the Abkhazians and even encouraging mercenaries to fight against the Georgians. Caught in the middle of this nightmare was a community of Estonians that had lived in this part of the world for more than 100 years. Once hostilities broke out, most Estonians felt they had no choice but to return to their country, but not everyone went. "Tangerines" begins with one such reluctant Estonian, Ivo, introduced as he's carefully cutting pieces of wood to make crates. Effectively played by veteran Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak, Ivo is gray-bearded but resolute, a man of strong character who looks like a biblical patriarch and believes unequivocally in moral rules. Ivo is making these crates for his neighbor and fellow Estonian Margus (Elmo Nüganen) and his thriving tangerine orchard. It's overloaded with fruit that should be picked as soon as possible, an activity the civil war is making problematic. Soon, however, both men have problems more serious than the potential loss of a crop. First, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary fighting with the Abkhazians, rousts Ivo and demands food for himself and a friend. Though he calls him Grandpa, Ahmed seems to instinctively respect Ivo's character, telling him "it's a shame brave men like you get old." When Ahmed leaves, Ivo expects never to see him again, but fate intervenes. A brief skirmish with a group loyal to Georgia leaves Ahmed's friend as well as most of the Georgians dead. Ahmed, however, survives, as does one of his opponents, a young Georgian named Niko (Mikhail Meskhi). With Margus' help, Ivo puts each wounded man in a separate room in his house, the equivalent of placing boxers in opposing corners. He does what he can to see that both of them recover because of a bedrock belief in the sanctity of human life. As they recover, however, Ahmed and Niko are each consumed with the desire to take the other's life. Animated by hostility, needling each other verbally because they lack the strength for more extreme action, they offer sad proof of the durability of ethnic animosities even among people who barely know each other. Ivo, however, uncategorically refuses to let anyone be killed in his house. He insists on a truce within its walls, which both men respect because he saved their lives. Can the strength of his will, his "What is it with you guys, what gives you the right to kill?" attitude, begin to make a difference, and if so, for how long? The actors who play Ahmed and Niko are convincing, but it is the work of Ulfsak, recently awarded the male performer of the century award in Estonia, who has the presence to make this enterprise convincing. "Tangerines" is an intensely masculine story in which not so much as a single woman appears on-screen. Filmmaker Urushadze employs a deliberate pace and a melancholy tone to make his points and allow this convincing film to have its way with you.
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, April 23 2015.
A small-scale, poignant and accessible anti-war statement, Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze’s “Tangerines” spotlights regional conflict in 1992 Abkhazia, as one longtime rural resident who’s refused to flee takes in two wounded fighters on opposite sides. Beautifully shot by Rein Kotov, this seriocomic miniature won the audience award and a directing prize at last year’s Warsaw Film Festival, and is sure to accumulate more acclaim en route to niche international sales. Biz could be helped by the recent bump in attention to its otherwise little-noted setting: At its uppermost tip, Abkhazia is less than five miles from Winter Olympics host Sochi, but it might as well be 5,000, since the disputed territory’s borders remain tightly closed. Once ethnic/nationalistic strife commenced in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, a large local minority of Estonian extraction mostly bowed to pressure and left for their ancestral homeland. A stubborn holdout is carpenter/grandfather Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), who’s stayed behind partly to help neighbor Margus (Elmo Nuganen) harvest his annual tangerine crop. Worrying when the fighting will reach them, they don’t have long to wait before it does — just outside Ivo’s doorstep, there’s a shootout between Georgian and Russia-backed North Caucasian forces that leaves several dead. To avoid attracting reprisal violence, the two men bury the victims and hide their vehicles. But they can only do so much to control the animosity that moves right into Ivo’s home, between temporarily bedridden survivors Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and Nika (Mikhail Meskhi). Ahmed, a Chechen mercenary, is particularly keen on avenging his fallen comrades by killing the Georgian Nika — at least once they’re both ambulatory again. But the long period of forced cohabitation during recovery has its collectively humanizing effect. While the protags can’t prevent the outside world from wreaking further havoc, they gradually grow connected to each other in ways that transcend geographic, ethnic and religious divides. With nearly five-decade screen veteran Ulfsak setting the wry, soulful tenor, “Tangerines” balances humor and seriousness in deft fashion, its delicacy abetted by all thesps and design contributions — a sole exception being the rather bombastic power ballad running over the final credits. Shot in the western Georgia region of Guria, the film, with its gorgeous landscapes, further underlines the pointlessness of organized human bloodshed in the larger context of nature’s bounty.
Dennis Harvey, Variety, Feb 17, 2014.
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Total Number of Responses: 95
Film Score (0-5): 4.76
149 members and guests attended the screening of Tangerines and 95 completed response slips or sent in an e mail; hit rate 64%. Our apologies for the late start of this film. As you know we had no sound at all when we were setting up so thanks to all who found the solution and allowed us all to enjoy this terrific film. With 99% of responders scoring the film in the Excellent/Good Categories it has just pipped My Life as a Courgette to the top spot for the season by 0.01point. Below is only a sample of the comments/observations received. All responses are on the website. “A convincing portrayal of the futility of war and its terrible human consequences. It also shows you don't need a big cast, extravagant sets or big effects to make a gripping film. Lembit Ulfsak was outstanding with strong support from the small cast. Thanks to those who got the sound working as it would have been a shame to have missed this film!” “An anti-war movie that is as simple and straightforward in plot and intent as it could be. All the subtleties are in the script and performances which are note perfect, Ivo in particular’s dour respect for life and liberty and insouciant calm in the face of the vagaries of a pointless war are more affecting for the undemonstrative performance. Excellent. I particularly loved the eerie, mournful incidental music”. “A simple but powerful story. Beautifully filmed (and projected eventually)”. “Beautifully restrained performances. Poignant and witty”. “Loved it; human drama at its best”. “One of the saddest films I have ever seen, but beautiful”. “The absurdity of war. We are all humans and people at the end of the day. Haunting melody…” “Wonderful and heart-warming! Good men and a bit of peace-making in a terrible war! Atmospheric and riveting, nice touches of humour – right length”. “Great acting in a low key film. The sort of film a film club is for – superb film I would not have seen it otherwise…” “I really enjoyed this film, very moving and certainly emphasised the futility of war”. “A film of great humanity. Failed the Bechdel test though” and for those who don’t know what that is, here is a definition. The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added. “Spasibo – excellent, very engaging”. “Worth the wait”. “Genius! More relevant than ever”. “Simple story told very well. Loved it”. “Superbly acted and a wonderful pace. Excellent”. “A soothing and hopeful film – the message spoke louder than the violence…showing people are able to change how they feel, think, behave and act in a different direction”. “Very atmospheric and a good impression of how a difficult and terrible situation is coped with”. “A wonderful film. The Academy Award nomination was well deserved. Showed the utter futility of war through the personal tragedies of the characters”. “Life continues through conflict…so sad”. “Thanks for the chance to see it again – an amazing film”. “A beautiful film, moving, poignant with nice humour too”. “Wonderful characterisation and dialogue; even the plot which I though was a little confusing –perhaps by design and the politics; highly commendable”. “Pace just right – gradual unfolding of the plot which…surprised and an authentic setting. Interesting and original”. “Very moving film – fantastic ending with the tape”. “What a powerful film! Moving and frightening. Excellent!” “Real and believable. Slow but thoroughly worthwhile…shouldn’t be rushed”. “Rather intriguing – was Ahmed really Chechen?” “Fantastic film but heart rending because we all have so much in common but fail to embrace that”. “Great understated acting gave the film am aura beyond the story. I think it was Leon Uris who wrote, “At the end of war there are no victors or vanquished – only victims” Humanity is the face of war – superbly told”. “Absorbing film. Fine performances. One of the best of the season so far. Deserved its nomination”. “Very well constructed. Atmospheric and poignant. Good photography. Interestingly we only saw the sea and mountains at the end – as a “hopeful” element”. “Wonderful! Great acting, well-paced and gripping story. Music fitted perfectly. Very powerful story and message – subtle at the same time”. “Excellent thought provoking piece. Need to brush up my recent European geography”. “Best this year”. “A dignified and ultimately heart-warming window on an almost forgotten chapter of history. Beautifully acted by the whole cast”. I loved the pale palette of colour and the very appropriate music…hard to quite credit the story but an excellent anti-war, futility of was film”. “Horrifyingly accurate depiction of what happened and still continues under the surface in that region…” “The film took its time which made the violence more shocking”. “The moment Ahmed and Niko become friends – war destroys it”. “Really enjoyed it. Ivo’s humanity was beautifully portrayed and the tension developed well between the two soldiers…”. “Great film – excellent cinematography; good use of music and great acting. Clever use of dialogue, especially between the younger men – just like two little boys squabbling over nothing. That and the tangerine motif made the message”. “Excellently made film with some splendid character acting. Somewhat trite moralising about the futility of war and the fluidity and evanescence of loyalties”. “I’m still new to all this, but enjoyed this film and it gave me some inkling of what makes a film worth watching. It was completely absorbing, despite the very restricted setting which one might think would be a negative, mainly because the characters were so convincing. The weaving together of different nationalities in a story which could really be set in any war at any time was especially thought provoking. I presume the language was Russian (I recognised ‘yes’ and ‘death’), but was very pleased to find that the subtitles worked without being a distraction. Nice timing as last week I booked my flight to Tbilisi for a holiday next May!” “Excellent. Really good anti-war film showing how friendships can develop between enemies. Ivo a real hero. Need to brush up my history and geography knowledge!” “Thanks for enabling us all to see this wonderful film. It had everything: captivating mise en scene, engaging plot, good pace, convincing acting and a story I knew nothing about. Ivo’s authentic bravery and humanity is an example for us all.” “Difficult to add anything to the comments in the Irish Times review - thoroughly enjoyable film”. “A wonderful quiet reflection on the inanities of war with marvellous acting”. “Great, thoughtful film; not an original idea for a film, but beautifully executed in almost every way. Clearly the director wanted all the focus to be on the characters and their small bubble, almost isolated from the world and the war outside, but it was a tad frustrating to find (right at the end) that the location was apparently by a sea coast with wonderful mountains and scenery all around, all of which we never saw. A great film though, well worthy of its nomination. Well chosen!” “This film was wonderful: atmospheric and so evocative of the unique Georgian landscape. The acting was faultless: depicting the realistic awkwardness of men trapped in emotional quandaries, with the exception of the main protagonist Ivo. Such a wholly good man - non-judgemental with great moral insight. The voice of reason amongst confusion and hate. The dialogue was minimal and in being so, very effective. Little was spoken yet much was communicated: almost Pinteresque. It was so refreshing to see a film with such a different setting which addressed totally unfamiliar content. It gets full marks from me...” “A soothing and hopeful film – the message spoke louder than the violence…showing people are able to change how they feel, think, behave and act in a different direction”. “Very atmospheric and a good impression of how a difficult and terrible situation is coped with”.