In a rural village in Abkhazia, in the shadow of the mountains, a tangerine farm sees the dance of life and death play out within its quiet borders.
Zaza Urushadze’s “Tangerines” brings the 1992 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict into the confines of an orchard. The Georgian writer-director takes an anti-war stance in a small arena, to admirable effect. The stoic drama is one well worthy of notice, having received 2015 Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film.
From the talent behind “Three Houses” (2008), “Stay With Me” (2011) and “The Guardian” (2012), “Tangerines” is a stirring narrative about the fruitlessness of ethnic enmity.
“It is about trust in the human kindness that will eventually prevail, if people are able to forgive, help and protect each other,” Urushadze said in his director’s statement, describing the film’s leitmotif as “people without borders.”
The scene is the calm before the storm. In the face of war, Estonian immigrants Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nüganen) plan to stay behind in Abkhazia just long enough to harvest a tangerine crop. Their bucolic landscape is tempered by an invasive current of anxiety, painted into being with scenic swatches of green-gray and brown.
Urushadze doesn’t delay in introducing the realities of war into Ivo’s home. A Chechen mercenary, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), arrives knocking at his door. Caught in a bloody skirmish, Ahmed emerges from the crossfire near death with his wartime enemy, Niko (Misha Meskhi). Ivo takes the Chechen and the Georgian under his roof without hesitation — with the firm caveat, however, that the soldiers are not to harm each other while they are recovering.
Ivo’s order has the markings of a humanistic plea. Ivo, in a commendable performance by Estonian actor Ulfsak, embodies an unwavering belief in human agency in the midst of absurdity.
We are introduced to Ivo in a long opening shot of shivering hands cutting wood. The muted moment foreshadows the quiet strength he will command to impart lessons of empathy. Despite the looming war, Ivo maintains his composure and moral fortitude. He channels the forbearance of a man verging on his twilight years, gently nudging his young charges away from the detachment cultivated by bloodshed.
Like two tigers domesticated into house cats, Ahmed and Niko bristle in close quarters. The wounded men settle for circling each other while peeling fruit, exchanging murderous barbs that are deadpan enough to be funny: “If you want to live, don’t go outside. Don’t even put your head outside the window. I will chop it off.”
Images of tangerines are rife throughout in bowls, boxes, trees and symbolic gesture as Ivo’s patience finally bears fruit. Under the old man’s watch, the soldiers’ brutishness comes to soften. Slack pacing — one of the film’s few flaws — deadens the atmosphere and sucks the life out of their bubbling animosity.
Ultimately, Urushadze skillfully unites tenderness with violence to make a powerful appeal for peace. His interpretation refrains from gratuitous gun slinging, electing to enhance dramatic effect by preserving an overriding sense of calm. Fighting scenes are as starkly somber as domestic rituals of tea time and woodcutting. With a refined approach to a well-worn subject, the production avoids the heavy-handedness of didactic moralizing.
Predictably, at one point, a stray bullet whizzes by and turns the tragedy up a notch. Perhaps “Tangerines” does push too hard for us to grieve at a teary ending we expected from the get-go. But with a theme as universal as death, its execution is commendable and nimbly avoids the pitfalls of romanticism or excessive sentiment.
“Tangerines” is a somber work of exceptional intelligence about a conflict largely swept aside in the Western world. The film undresses the big theme of war to one basic tenet: the sacrifice of human life. True, “Tangerines” is imperfect, but Urushadze nonetheless latches tightly onto the sanctity of life, and his eloquent conception impresses upon us his compelling vision of truth.
‘Tangerines’ opens Friday, May 8 at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.