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Entries in Tangerines [2013] (1)

Friday
May012015

Tangerines (2013)

Far from the Tree

Every once in awhile, a movie knocks me for a loop in a big way. Tangerines is once such film. Set in 1992, Zaza Urushadze's deeply personal and affecting drama centers on a small, war-torn Abkhazian village whose largely Estonian population has fled to the homeland. The only two men left are a tangerine farmer named Margus (Elmo Nüganen) and a woodworker named Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak). They refused to leave for very different reasons, and find themselves caught in a skirmish between Chechen mercenaries and a small contingent of Georgian soldiers. When one member of each side is wounded, Ivo and Margus nurse them back to health while attempting to mend a murderous cultural divide.

For "C" students of world history like me, Tangerines is an exercise in immersion. Writer/director Urushadze provides a very brief title-card setup and then dives right in to the daily lives of two spiritually shell-shocked men who are just as confused by all the factions and fighting as we are. The Chechens and Abkhazians look heartier than the scrawny Georgians, but that's the only real visual difference between the two.* We're left with two shot-up and angry soldiers verbally dragging each other into oblivion, and two caretakers acting as if they're observing insects. Ivo and Margus see the Georgian, Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), and the Chechen, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), as removed from whatever historical, political, or religious problems propelled them into battle. For them, and for us, the context takes a back seat to the truth of the moment; Urushadze clears the table and forces these opposing forces to consider each other as one species--rather than as fractious races.

Though I felt Georgia-born Urushadze weighted his story's sympathies a bit too heavily towards Niko (a character painted as more studied and measured than his "Kill! Kill! Kill!" counterpart), he makes both combatants as colorful and endlessly watchable as Margus' bountiful tangerine trees. Tangerines begins with terrible events that drive the men inside, and Ivo declares his home a sanctuary against violence. Ahmed agrees not to kill the more seriously injured Niko within its walls. As the men's relationship progresses, we follow them back outside, and the savagery of the wider world threatens to erode their efforts to transcend a primal pack mentality.

The movie's final fifteen minutes are thrilling, sad, and ultimately beautiful. I jumped, I cried, I wondered how many similar stories happen every day across dozens of countries still engaged in ancient wars. America has made "Can't we all just get along?" into a punch-line, but it meant something once--in 1992, as a matter of fact. Nearly a quarter-century on, I have the privilege of never having been displaced, shot at, or made to distrust my neighbor. Perhaps it is this detachment that allowed me to sympathize most with Ivo, a man so scarred by conflict that he refused to allow it in his own home. Some might call that burying one's head in the sand. But Urushadze makes a compelling case for getting everyone in a room for a face-to-face celebration of life's simplest pleasures: laughter, reminiscences about family and good times, and just enjoying all the sweet gifts waiting to be picked just beyond the confines of our petty bickering.

*That sounds like an odd thing to point out, but appearances become very important towards the middle of the movie.