Tangerines (Mandariinid)

Georgia (2013) Dir. Zaza Urushadze

War! What is it good for? Georgian filmmaker Zaza Urushadze ponders Edwin Starr’s question with this quietly powerful film that holds a mirror up to the follies of war whilst allowing the story to carry its moral message over didactic dialogue.

Set during the 1992-93 War in Abkhazia, two Estonians Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nüganen) remain in a small village where Margus grows tangerines for which Ivo makes the crates that they hope to sell to raise the money to return to Estonia. After two Chechen mercenaries appear at Ivo’s door demanding food they are engaged in a shoot out with Georgian soldiers.

Ivo and Mangus find one of the Chechens, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) alive but badly injured and take him to Ivo’s home for treatment. Whilst burying Ahmed’s partner they discover a severely wounded Georgian volunteer solider Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), who Ivo also takes in. When both men realise they are sharing a house with the enemy they vow to kill each other but Ivo demands they keep the peace.

Despite war being the central topic and with very little fighting shown this intense drama is more of a meditation on the futility of conflict, the battleground shifting from the soil of Abkhazia to the kitchen table of Ivo’s small house. Ivo certainly does a better job than Ban Ki-Moon in establishing a peaceful environment that’s for sure.

The simplicity of Urushadze’s story is the film’s greatest strength and doesn’t need any additional layers of emotional manipulation or any visual extravagance to make an impact with the audience. It is a tale of humanity scoring a victory over blind hatred through simple communication and tolerance but it doesn’t come without its sacrifices, a necessary evil to underline the senselessness of this entire dispute.

What the story boils down to is deconstructing the very essence of what breeds a conflict like this and how misguided and fictional the animus and prejudices instilled in the fighters really are. It might not register at first but this is not the fight of any of our three principals – Ahmed is a hired mercenary, Niko merely volunteered out of a sense of duty and Ivo is non-national in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

It’s not difficult to see where this story goes and while it seems rushed within the 86 minute runtime, it is a gradual development, with plenty of stepping stones for the two warring fighters to navigate by way of detailing the journey towards a potential truce. For Ivo, it is left until the final act before we learn what forms his stance about the conflict and why he is so determined to quash any further hostilities.

At one point Margus’s house it hit during a shell attack which serves as a turning point in the story and in the fraught relationship between Ahmed and Niko. There is something rather comical about the way these bicker at first, mostly on Ahmed’s part as he is lying incapacitated in bed and vowing to kill an unconscious Niko as soon he awakes or as soon as he gets better himself, whichever comes first.

With Ivo declaring his house neutral territory and no killing shall take place, but outside is fine, we are left to wonder who will break first as barbed exchanges take place across the kitchen table, both men resolute in supporting their causes and their beliefs. Ivo tries talking to them without taking sides and plants a few seeds of doubt in their minds, his demand for civility gradually bearing fruit.

Urushadze’s script is cleverly written in that it broaches the subject of the fruitlessness of war yet avoids taking a political stance, which one would expect from a Georgian. The closest we get is Ahmed making it clear that while he is fighting on behalf of Abkhazia, he has no time for his Russian paymasters either, as if he holds them in the same contempt as his Georgian counterparts.

In one scene, a group of Russians show up to check on Ivo and they spot Ahmed and Niko; Ivo has Niko pretend he is Chechen but can’t talk due to his head injuries and Ahmed is asked to play along in this deceit. He does and yet having to speak well of his enemy doesn’t leave as bad a taste in his mouth as he thought, while Niko hides his discomfort at being praised as a Georgian killing Chechen by the Russians.

Despite many faces cropping up this film hinges on the four men at the heart of this tale and the quartet tasked with portraying them each inhabit their roles with an astute awareness of the individual character traits. As the most senior member Lembit Ulfsak essays Ivo as a respected elder with a hidden torment driving his natural altruistic stance, serving as the film’s hub with a quiet dignity.

Elmo Nüganen is almost a comedy sidekick as Margus but his presence proves pivotal to the plot. Giorgi Nakashidze looks every part the brutish mercenary Ahmed is, suffusing the characterisation with subtle hints of boorish levity, countered by the lanky Mikheil Meskhi, whose smart mouthed Niko cuts a sympathetic figure with a dark edge to him.

The sparse settings of a bucolic house, a workshop and the tangerine orchard suggest this could easily have been a stage play, Urushadze’s direction is that straightforward and free from any pretension to let the story be our primary focus. The camerawork is respectfully distant to avoid crowding the characters but captures everything clearly; the presence of the occasional explosion and gunfire outside the window completes the tangible experience.

Some might label Tangerines as an “anti-war” film, and there is a strong argument for that, but it is actually smarter than that – “pro-humanity” is arguably more apt. Either way this intelligent and superbly crafted polemic has plenty to say and deserves a wider audience to heed its message.


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