Film Review: Tangerines

The first Georgian film to be nominated for an Academy award, 'Tangerines' is an idealistic allegory in which the hope for peace lies with an aging patriarch.
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In Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated Tangerines, injured soldiers Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi) are cared for by Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an elderly Estonian man who refuses to evacuate his Georgian village after the onset of armed conflict. In part, he stays to help his neighbor Margus (Elmo Nüganen), who is determined to harvest his tangerine crop despite the violence at his doorstep. Ivo is a carpenter, and in the opening shot of the film, he is cutting wood for the crates needed to ship the fruit. The money from the sale of the tangerines will allow Margus to join his family in Estonia. Their efforts are stalled by the skirmish at the edge of the tangerine orchard that brings Ahmed and Niko into Ivo’s home.

Urushadze’s fictional story is set in 1992 at a key moment in Georgia’s establishment as an independent state. Some of the residents of Abkhazia, who represent several ethnicities, refused to accept the country’s new president. These separatists declared their alliance with Russia, sparking internecine conflict. (The former Soviet state of Georgia lies between Russia and Turkey; Abkhazia, still a disputed territory, is just north of Georgia’s Black Sea border.) Ahmed, a Muslim, fights on the side of the separatists, although he is a mercenary. Niko, a Russian Orthodox, joined the Georgian army to preserve his country’s new government. While the two men survive the clash in the village, other soldiers on both sides are killed, including Ahmed’s boyhood friend.

At first, Ivo is compelled to lock Niko in his bedroom to keep him from being killed by the vengeful Ahmed, who occupies an adjoining room. After a few days, and threats from marauding soldiers on both sides, an uneasy détente is established in Ivo’s cottage, as the men recover from their wounds. Excellent performances from the ensemble cast, especially Nakashidze as Ahmed, elevate what is an otherwise theatrical treatment of a timeworn narrative. Events unfold from Ivo’s point-of-view, but the writer-director never reveals his protagonist’s true motives for looking after the soldiers until the last minutes of the movie; that robs both the character and the narrative of emotional complexity, and places emphasis upon the action, the predictable dinner table disputes. Urushadze then marginalizes Margus, never mining the richness of his obsession with his orchard, which would have provided a meaningful subtext and the perfect foil for the moribund atmosphere inside the cottage.

Tangerines is an allegory that imagines the problems of an increasingly militarized world will be solved through the leadership of an aging patriarch, a rather implausible outcome from any recent historical perspective. It is the first Georgian film to garner the Academy’s attention, and while it may be celebrated for highlighting the country’s ongoing struggle with separatists, it is not the only recent movie to be set in that country. In Russian-born filmmaker Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, a beautifully written and directed movie set in the Caucus Mountains of Georgia, the turning point of the story arrives when an armed Muslim man and his son threaten the protagonists, a pair of hikers and their Georgian guide.

Loktev’s narrative may also be viewed as an allegory, a feminist perspective on the predicament of women in patriarchal societies in which the male characters threaten, abandon and exploit the feminine protagonist. Unlike Tangerines, in The Loneliest Planet the American writer-director effectively portrays nature, not the tameness of an orchard but the wilds of Georgia’s adamantine landscape, as an alternative, and the site of her female protagonist’s individuation. Loktev’s movie received awards at several prominent international festivals, and premiered in the U.S. at the New York Film Festival. It opened and closed within two weeks, and was barely noted by critics.

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