It is 1992. In Georgia, a civil war is tearing the country apart. Estonian settlers are fleeing back to Estonia to escape. In the midst of this, Ivo and his neighbor Margus, both senior Estonian men, tend to their tangerine crop. They want to stay until the last of their tangerines is harvested, despite the war that’s coming increasingly near. When two injured soldiers turn up near their houses, Ivo and Margus take them in and care for them.
Such is the premise of writer and director Zaza Urushadze’s movie Tangerines, a film that is a moving tribute to the individual people whose lives are disrupted in wartime. Though it’s set in Georgia, it could easily be set anywhere, in any war. The theme of overcoming divisions and recognizing others’ humanity is so universal it has been done a thousand times; yet this movie’s characters are such fully fleshed out people the story feels unique.
In between gorgeous shots of the Georgian countryside, the story unfolds. Many of the scenes are simple dialogue, and a lot is left unsaid. Urushadze knows—and expects—that viewers can read between the lines. None of the men ever explicitly express the complexity of their emotions. They do not need to. They understand each other, and we understand them, without too many words.
At the heart of the story is the bond that forms between the four men: Ivo, Margus, Nika, and Ahmed. Ahmed is a Chechen mercenary fighting for Abkhazian independence from Georgia. Nika is a Georgian, fighting to keep Georgia together. Their friendship is an unlikely one, but, by the end, it is a meaningful one, too. Very little backstory is given for either of them; the war—the present—is all that matters now. Anything that happened before that was in a different reality.
While Nika and Ahmed portray the realities of fighting a war, Ivo and Margus represent all the ordinary people struggling to continue their everyday lives. In explaining his preoccupation with the tangerine crop, Margus says “it’s not about the money […] It’s just that a beautiful crop will perish.” He’s not just talking about fruit. He’s talking about the tragedy of all the lives ruined, or lost, because of senseless violence.
Urushadze is a director utterly unafraid of silences. He allows for breaks in the conversation, letting the men sit quietly near each other. Many scenes have no background music at all. When they do, it is always the same tune, never swelling or slowing down. In Hollywood movies, music is too often used as a crutch to tell audience members what to feel and when. It is refreshing to have a film that has faith in the story, on its own, to evoke the necessary emotions.
There are no women in Tangerines. The closest we come to seeing one is in a photograph of Ivo’s granddaughter, which he keeps on a shelf in his house. Nika, the Georgian, keeps looking at it. When Ivo comments on that, Nika at first denies it, then confesses that he thinks she’s very pretty. Ivo responds “she’s even prettier in person […] She means everything to me.” Even in this world comprised entirely of men, women are still present. They are still in the minds of every one of the men, still exerting influence, even when they cannot do so in person.
The outcome of the story is not entirely unpredictable, but that is beside the point. Urushadze is not trying to shock or surprise. He’s merely painting a picture of these regular people doing their best to deal with extraordinary circumstances. What we make of that is up to us.
Opens May 8