fri 19/04/2024

DVD: Tangerines | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Tangerines

DVD: Tangerines

Powerful, understated anti-war film brings Estonian and Georgian forces together

Jagged history: 'Tangerines' catches the confused allegiances of the the Soviet Union's break-up

Georgian director Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines made the shortlist of five for last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar category (it didn't win). It was nominated from Georgia, but could equally well have represented Estonia: this incrementally powerful anti-war film is that rarest of things, a co-production between two rather different countries with a story that draws genuinely on the worlds of both.

The consequences – human, most of all – of the break-up of the Soviet Union as it accelerated through the second half of 1991 haven’t been reflected all that widely in cinema, and Tangerines is superlative in giving a perspective on those troubled times. Politics in the wider sense is remote, however: instead we’re in the micro-world of Abkhazia, the breakaway region of Georgia that through 1992-93 fought (and eventually won) a bloody war for independence from Tbilisi. The conflict was surely the worst of the territorial disputes that erupted when the USSR imploded, though its nuances remain largely forgotten today.

It’s accentuated by a melancholy, almost gurning score

The fate of a colony of ethnic Estonians in the region is the kind of postscript of history that would otherwise have disappeared completely, and Urushadze’s script creates a whole rich world around it. Only the elderly Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and his neighbour Margus (Elmo Nüganen) remain in their erstwhile home, yet to flee the conflict to the safety of their homeland – the former for reasons poignantly revealed only at the very end of the film, the latter because he hopes to harvest a final crop of the titular fruit from his orchards to facilitate the journey there.

The tranquillity of their rural existence – Ivo, a carpenter, makes the crates to transport the tangerines, though his workshop proves equally adept at producing coffins – is broken by a shootout. With his instinctive impartial decency, Ivo saves the survivors, first Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary fighting on the Abkhazian side; then one of his opponents, Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian who seems an unlikely soldier (we learn in due course that in civilian life he was an actor).

Ivo must prevail on both to overcome their mutual hatred, and defer plans to kill one another while they're under his roof, before he can nurture them both back to life. In the process the wider details of their varied stories emerge, including elements of comedy that sit very naturally alongside the darker tone of Urushadze’s story. It’s accentuated by a melancholy, almost gurning score by Niaz Diasamidze; from the Estonian side, Rein Kotov’s cinematography catches the natural beauty of the film’s world (pictured above, Lembit Ulfsak in one of Kotov’s painterly scenes), as well as the casual destruction that war brings to them.

As well as their shared film talent – the Estonian actor Nüganen is a film director too, who has made two of his country’s most successful films of the last two decades, including last year’s local blockbuster 1944 – Georgia and Estonia are among the prime opponents of today’s Kremlin. It speaks volumes that Tangerines received production support from Eurimages, the pan-European body that encourages such cross-border collaborations (Russia remains a member of that structure, though for how long must be anybody’s guess). Where once such cinema collaborations would have been coordinated only via Moscow, today they thrive independently of that former master.

The only extra here, a “Making of” feature, gives a sense of how that process proceeded. It would be fascinating to see more, not least because the national stereotypes (fostered in Soviet times) of the two countries – phlegmatic, reserved Estonia, set against hot-headed, emotional Georgia – could hardly be more different. But such clichés are meaningless now: as a piece of filmmaking, Tangerines more than speaks for itself.

Ivo, a carpenter, makes the crates to transport the tangerines, though his workshop proves equally adept at producing coffins


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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