Tangerines / Mandariinid (2013)
Dir: Zaza Urushadze
Academy Award Nomination: Foreign Film.
I’ve watched three Oscar nominated films about different aspects of war this week and this one, about the different sides of conflict and the innocent people who get caught in the middle, is the film I’ve enjoyed the most, by far!
An elderly Estonian man, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), has stayed in his home in Abkhazia despite nearly all his neighbours abandoning the village and moving back to Estonia because of the conflict in the area. Intending to just get on with his life, he finds he cannot stay completely out of the war when a battle comes right to his front door and he saves the lives of two soldiers, one from each side of the conflict.
The interesting setting and premise of the villages with few remaining is established in the opening titles and then the first scene immediately introduces likeable lead character Ivo, busily making crates for his neighbour Margus’ (Elmo Nüganen) tangerines. The war is rapidly approaching, and when soldiers moving through the area check he’s not a threat, we are shown clearly that he is not. Things take quite a change in focus when a mutually destructive battle ends right outside Ivo and Margus’ homes, and the men act compassionately, rescuing the two surviving fighters regardless of their political views. Ivo finds himself with a Chechen and Georgian under same roof, men who were shooting at each other outside are now being cared for together and thanks to their respect for older people they agree not to kill each other in Ivo’s house. If looks could kill they would have broken their promise, and there are some tense scenes around the kitchen table where their heated discussions shed some light on the conflict they are both involved in. Their host however just wants peace, and has to act as mediator and peacekeeper as best he can.
All of this is brilliantly acted throughout by all involved. We keep seeing signs of changes in the two fighters, some only subtle though it’s making a much bigger difference under the surface. When there are scenes of action they are sudden and powerful, but also very telling, and support all the quieter scenes of conversation. The balance is excellent, making a lot of the themes clear, while also keeping the film fully engaging. The setting itself allows for some beautiful shots of the area, the tangerine orchard, and even Ivo’s simple but cosy home and workshop which contrasts against the wreckage and destruction of war.
This is such a superb and compelling story that less competently handled would be overly sentimentalized or sanitized, but here the film plays out really perfectly, with characters I could completely believe in, and a warmth that is almost always lacking from films centred on conflict.