Despite its setting amidst a highly regionalized conflict most Americans (this reviewer included) know nothing about, the 1992-93 War in Abkhazia between Georgians and Abkhazian separatists, Tangerines (which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) is a universal story in the very best sense, a deeply humane and compassionate call for a world without borders. The obscurity of the conflict to American eyes is, in a way, an asset, as it allows us to see the senselessness of the barriers that have been erected among the Georgians, the Abkhazians, and the ethnic Estonian community which is caught in the middle of the conflict. At one point, a Chechen even derides the Georgians as inferior for their (ostensibly innate) inability to properly prepare shashlik.
Tangerines is the quietest of war films, telling the story of Ivo (played by legendary Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak), an elderly Estonian who has stayed behind in Georgia while his family, and most of the rest of the traditional Estonian community, has fled back to Estonia. Ivo has stayed behind, at least in part, to help his neighbor Margus (Elmo Nüganen) harvest his tangerine crop — the beautiful bright orange fruit looks so out of place in a time of war. When a roadside skirmish leaves two wounded survivors, one Georgian and one a Chechen mercenary fighting on the side of the Abkhazians, Ivo takes them both into his home. Despite their ethnic divisions, their different religions — the Chechen is Muslim, the Georgian is Christian — and their repeated vows to kill each other, the men start to form an odd sort of bond.
Ivo keeps the men from killing each other largely through the force of his moral convictions, telling the Chechen at one point, “If you want to kill anyone in my house, you must kill me.” The character of Ivo could have easily turned into a cliche, the sort of sanctimonious moralizer that gives pacifism a bad name, but in Ulfsak’s hands, Ivo is a kind of reluctant father figure to his squabbling wards, gruff and slightly enigmatic. He has sad eyes that tells us he has known tragedy in his life, but this tragedy has only strengthened his moral resolve.
Tangerines is almost naive in its belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings, a point it shares with Ivo, who is needled by Margus for believing that he can keep two warring soldiers under the same roof without them killing each other. But it is hard not to be moved by the film’s clear-eyed moral simplicity. Men are not born soldiers. The borders that divide them are constructed by people and can be dismantled by people. War is simply the logical conclusion from the premise of ethnic borders. Much to the film’s credit, none of these maxims is specifically communicated in Tangerines, and yet the message is entirely clear.
Unlike many war movies, which profess an anti-war position but seem to get off on the thrill of battle, Tangerines has pacifism in the core of its being. It is a gentle, merciful film permeated with gloom over the absurdities of war. When combat does inevitably reach the screen, it rightly comes off as awkward and clunky, scared men firing their kalashnikovs wildly, a million miles away from the highly trained super snipers of Hollywood.
Tangerines is not an entirely perfect film. For having such a brief runtime (under 90 minutes), the film throws out a lot of different threads, not all of which it successfully integrates. The dramaturgy is sometimes a bit awkward, especially in some of the early scenes. There are also frequent imperfections in the subtitles. However, even with these flaws around the edges, the core of the film — both in its dramatic premise and in its broadly appealing yet subtly radical conviction in the lunacy of all borders — is highly compelling and deeply moving. For anyone who ever thought John Lennon had a point when he sang, “Imagine there’s no countries / it isn’t hard to do / nothing to kill or die for,” this movie is for you.
TANGERINES will be released in select theaters on April 17.