Anti-war films have been a global phenomenon for more than 100 years, with prime examples encompassing every imaginable cinematic style from battle-centered epics (Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front) to pitch-black comedies (Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). Often the most effective anti-war films penetrate immense and complex subject matter by telling modest, human-scaled stories. The first film from the Baltic Republic of Estonia to earn a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, Tangerines, fits the bill with a moving tale of four very different men in the country of Georgia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, all contending with an unwanted regional war that has transformed their lives.
This particular real-world conflict (known as the War in Abkhazia or the Georgian Civil War) is difficult to understand — not only for outsiders but also for those embroiled in the fighting. The war took place immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and pitted Georgian forces against a political alliance of separatist forces from the Georgian region of Abkhazia and the Russian army in a dispute over Georgian land. The story centers on two ethnic Estonians (a people with their own century-long history of life in Georgia) who feel no personal allegiance in the conflict. The film's tenuous alliances are like those in today's Middle East, where last year's ally becomes this year's mortal enemy and a constantly updated flow chart is required to track all the warring factions.
Ivo (Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nuganen) own adjacent farms in Georgia and stayed behind when the Estonian community returned to its fatherland after war broke out. Margus hopes to salvage his just-ripe crop of tangerines while Ivo builds the crates required to transport the fruit. A deadly skirmish takes place on the road in front of their houses, and the quietly humanist Ivo takes in two wounded soldiers representing opposing sides of the conflict in hopes of nursing them back to health. A limited truce inside Ivo's house leads to a shot at enlightenment regarding petty tribal differences and empty justifications for war.
Shot and set in a single location and featuring only five speaking roles (an Estonian doctor also has stayed behind), Tangerines serves as a workshop on how to craft an original and compelling film with limited resources. Third-time writer-director Zaza Urushadze (a native Georgian) uses widescreen photography, high-contrast lighting and subtle camera movements to keep the film's limited scope from becoming claustrophobic — even as much of the action occurs in the form of tense conversation around a dinner table. Bombs and firefights help move the story forward. But unlike many anti-war films, there's no guilt-ridden indulgence in the visceral thrill of battle.
As the thoughtful Ivo, Ulfsak manages a measured performance that grounds the film and removes any danger of it becoming preachy or didactic. Tangerines is a simple story, well told, especially with benefit of its compact 86-minute running time. Even with a century's worth of anti-war films behind it, there's a message here that always bears repeating.