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Review: In Oscar-Nominated “Tangerines” an Astute Estonian Carpenter Attempts to Reconcile Perennial Enemies

Review: In Oscar-Nominated “Tangerines” an Astute Estonian Carpenter Attempts to Reconcile Perennial Enemies

“Cinema is a fraud,” exclaims Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an elderly Estonian man
living in the Caucasus Mountains, after one of his last remaining friends expresses
his disappointed when an army van they are disposing of doesn’t explode when
falling from a cliff.  The man
expected such occurrence based upon what he had witnessed in movies.

Beneath this statement one could infer that Ivo’s disillusionment with Hollywood has more to do with its depiction of
war than with this precise incident, but it undoubtedly asserts that
Tangerines” is not another textbook drama about the atrocities of armed conflicts as the West likes to present them.
Instead, Georgian director Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated gem is witty and heartfelt without
stepping on patronizing or condemning territory.

During the War in Abkhazia in the early 90s, most Estonians
who lived in the region returned home given that the fighting only involved
Georgia and the Russian-backed Abkhazians. Ivo, being an experience carpenter capable
of making numerous crates per day, and his caring friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen), who owns a
sizeable amount of tangerine trees, decided to stay behind in order to sell their
Inescapably, their peaceful and isolated days come to an end when the
gunshots arrive at their doorsteps. Startled by the commotion of warfare so
close to him, Ivo searches several damaged vehicles for any sings of life until
he finds Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary still conscious. He recognizes him as the same man that had come asking for food days earlier.

Among the wreckage Ivo, with Margus’ help, also discovers
several deceased men from both sides and Niko (Misha Meskhi), a Georgian soldier who has
miraculously survived an injury to the head. Hoping to save them both, Ivo must
now house the two mortal enemies in recovery under the same roof. He feeds them
and takes care of their wounds like a strict, yet affectionate, father would.
But the moment the two become aware of the other’s presence, their hatred comes
to the surface instantly. Ivo’s efforts to keep them alive might prove too small to
counteract their respective preset ideologies.

Ahmed promises to kill Niko as soon as the latter can stand
on his feet. Ivo intervenes and requests that if any violence should take
place, this should not happen inside his house. Grateful for what he’s done for
them, both fighters agree to behave in a civilized manner while at Ivo’s place.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the tension completely subsides.

Urushadze capitalizes on the peculiar living arrangements
with humor and casual exchanges between the two perennial adversaries and the diplomatic
Ivo, which are at once enjoyable and insightful. War is constantly skulking outside
the door throughout the film, yet “Tangerines” consciously focuses far more on
the human component and reconciliation than the historical aspects of this
specific conflict. Its pacifist message is clear, but wrapped around a cleverly
written screenplay.

Occasionally, the minimalist approach might feel slightly
theatrical, but this is often quickly rectified by Rein Kotov’s splendid
cinematography: A breakfast sequences is transformed into an electrifying
confrontation, the breathtaking landscapes sparkle with color, and every
action-packed sequence is shot with tremendous effectiveness.

Purposely with a marvelous cinematic quality, “Tangerines”
is a departure from other Easter European films that sport a gloomy,
documentary-like, visual aesthetic. Here, while not overly stylized, each frame
captures glimpses of hope in the form of beauty even in the midst of chaos.

Evidently, as even Niko points out in the film, the film
industry of the region is underdeveloped and underfunded. Intelligently, Urushadze
chose to ditch a story of epic proportions for something intimate in which
whatever resources he had were channeled towards polished images and astounding

Wise and strangely endearing Mr. Ulfsak’s Ivo is the heart of this
unforgettable story. He is the voice of reason, a skillful countryman,
and someone who’s
suffered profound losses but can still look at humanity with
compassion. His no-nonsense way of doing things is efficient, fair, and
often comical.
Ulfsak’s performance avoids sentimentalism without being cold. He
tells it like it is and it’s brilliant.

In such a contained production, every piece is a crucial element,
and though Ulfsak unquestionably carries the action, the rest of the
cast delivers
equally memorable work. Nakashidze as the stubborn Ahmed experiences
a change of heart that feels organic and believable. Meanwhile, Meskhi
and his
superior demeanor as an educated Tbilisi man expose the great
difference between the two men not without highlighting moving
similarities like their mutual
fondness for music and religious tolerance.

Armed with a
mountain of excellently conceived elements, including the exotic and mesmerizing
score by Niaz Diasamidze, “Tangerines” is a near
perfect work that manages to fully captivate with it’s honesty. Still, as the
drama unfolds one can’t help but wonder about the significance of the eponymous
citrus fruit. It’s perhaps an insignificant reason for these men to stay and
work so hard day after day, but it’s a reason after all.

That’s what Urushadze’s film is about. Is not a philosophical
exploration on violence, but a humanistic mediation on the tiny treasures of
life that gain even more importance when death is so close in the horizon. “Tangerines”
is a powerful achievement both in content and technique that strikes a rare
balance between its mission to convey a message of peace and its ability to
truly entertain. Not to be missed.

Now playing in L.A. at the Laemmle Royal, Laemmle Playhouse 7, and Laemmle’s Town Center 5, and in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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