2015 was a good year, maybe the strongest in recent memory, for foreign Oscar contenders. “Ida” became a sleeper secret weapon at the box office before winning, while “Leviathan”s’s splashy politics turned heads and crowd-pleasers “Wild Tales” and “Timbuktu” continue to make money in the US.
But “Tangerines,” a humanist, anti-war fable, makes a more delicate impression. Director Zaza Urushadze’s crushing portrait of war-torn Georgia was a dark horse Academy darling all season before quietly sneaking into both the Golden Globe and Oscar final five. (Watch an exclusive “Tangerines” clip below.)
After more than a decade of submitting annually, this was the first nomination for Estonia — even though its director is Georgian. Urushadze’s home country submitted his debut “Here Comes the Dawn” in 2000 but failed to land a slot. “We had not experience. There was no money in the budget. We had no publicist,” said Urushadze. As the film’s primary investor, Estonia had deeper pockets, more experience and a publicist to pull it off. “I’m proud that Estonia chose a film by a Georgian director, when they could have chosen a film by an Estonian director. When I was sitting in that audience waiting for the envelope to be opened, It was such an emotional experience.”
The film unfolds in early-1990s Georgia against the violent backdrop of war in Abkhazia, where in a placid valley two elderly Estonians, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nüganen), tend to their tangerines — and eventually to two wounded soldiers from opposite sides of the battlefield. Urushadze’s cast and crew were also mixed Estonians and Georgians, who could not shoot in Russia-occupied Abkhazia, where head-of-state turnover has been historically high and where current president Raul Khajimba recently fastened a military agreement with Vladimir Putin.
“Instead, we shot in Guria, which is close to Abkhazia and the landscape looks quite alike. Everything you see onscreen was built, except the tangerine grove. It was the first time for me to build such a large set.”
Urushadze shot the film, smoothly, in just 32 days, with four principal male actors. Like Turkey’s Oscar submission “Winter Sleep,” “Tangerines” has a dramaturgical feel as four men of warring philosophies begin to see themselves in each other, and under one roof. “Each night we rehearsed the scenes we were to direct the next morning. We tried to eliminate the fakeness in dialogues. We would rehearse just before scenes too, which resulted in a minimum number of takes,” he said.
We never see any women, except for a fading photo of Ivo’s granddaughter, which one character falls in love with in one of the film’s more bittersweet moments. “That was intentional,” Urushadze said, “because without women the situation is more dramatic and at times turns into a tragicomedy.” That absence is crucial to how the film burrows into the psychology of men who go to war because over something that has been ideologically spoon-fed to them, only to learn that they are weak.