War Time

The quiet “Tangerines” offers up a more authentic wartime experience

In America, we think nothing of films depicting recent conflict. There was a TV movie about the standoff in Waco 34 days after it ended. In fact—as was the case with “United 93,” released four years after 9/11—some wonder if we wait long enough. In other countries, they don’t have the resources of a massive moviemaking machine, so topical films sometimes have to wait and wait and wait.

A great example is “The Lives of Others,” the Best Foreign Language Film winner in 2007 and one of the finest movies made in that decade. Depicting the Stasi spying on East Germans during the 1980s, the film still had trouble raising money for its production and finding local distribution some 15 years after the Berlin Wall came down.

“Tangerines” is another such story. An Estonian-Georgian film, it centers on the War in Abkhazia, which was no doubt on the tip of your tongue. But even though it barely lasted a year, the war killed thousands on both sides, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and was part of the wave of brutal ethnic cleansing that materialized as countries and religions fought for ground after the fall of the Soviet Union. Owing probably more to bitter tensions than empty pockets, a movie about that terrible era has finally emerged.

This film does not recount the many human rights violations from the war, but it does squarely pit the two sides against each other—in the rural cottage of an aging farmer. Most of this village is empty because of the war, but Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) has returned to harvest that year’s crop of tangerines. A firefight breaks out nearby between the two sides, and later Ivo finds only two survivors, a Chechen mercenary (Giorgi Nakashidze) and a Georgian nationalist (Mikheil Meskhi). He takes the men in, sees them back to health and makes them vow not to kill each other under his roof.

Tensions flame, of course. But soon, the relationship between the two men loses its heat and they begin to see if not the utter futility of war then certainly its inhumanity and costs. It isn’t a terribly unique story in this way, but each culture brings its own perspectives to this kind of standoff, and the dialogue in “Tangerines” is at its strongest when the two opposites start to see how much they have in common with each other and with their caretaker.

Director Zaza Urushadze made his first film in 1988, just as life behind the Iron Curtain was beginning to radically change. He wouldn’t make another film for 10 years (perhaps owing to conflict in the region), and would wait another 10 to make his third. His fourth movie, released in 2012, was “The Guardian,” which looked at modern life in Georgia after the 2003 Rose Revolution. And now he goes back in time again with a highly effective and what must only be a deeply personal document. “Tangerines” is a film about three men, but also a film about the frailty and folly of man, and it’s tough to get there unless you’ve seen it so close up.

Now and then, American filmmakers will tackle thorny subjects from beyond our borders. Angelina Jolie’s first directorial effort, the hit-and-miss “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” got close to the horrors of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. It was a brave way to start her career as a director, and certainly, by pulling no punches with the rape and murder so common in Bosnian-Serb conflict, she showed American viewers a side of “war” we may not have seen or expected. But she is nevertheless, in effect, just a translator.

“Tangerines” is a much quieter film, but it’s coming from a different place both literally and figuratively. It feels more authentic and in a way, that gives it more to say. ■

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