Film Review: Tangerines (Allfilm; 2013)

Photo: Allfilm
Photo: Allfilm

Seamus O’Kane, Contributor

Tangerines is an Estonian-Georgian film which takes place in the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia, wherein Russian-backed Abkhazian forces and hired fighters sought to secede from Georgian rule. When the conflict began, many of the population fled to Estonia. The protagonist, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), is one of the few who remains behind. His dedication to his way of life is shown in the opening scene where he makes crates with a steady hand to house the eponymous tangerines for his friend Magnus (Elmo Nüganen).

The story is driven by the compassion Ivo shows to wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict as they recover under his roof. He finds Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian soldier, and Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen close to death, and attempts to nurse them back to health. His interaction with them emphasises a common humanity; Ivo does not care about politics, only people. There is an awareness of life outside the war and how the war has transformed people, often for the worse.

A running theme throughout the film is the attempts made to retain integrity in the midst of social disintegration and how this societal breakdown alters norms of behaviour. The importance of family is repeatedly addressed and the question of how war threatens the familial unit and causes them to break is also raised. Ivo attempts to preserve the domestic setting yet the outside presence of war always threatens to intrude.

Allfilm; 2013

The message of why can’t we all just get along is perhaps a little too worn out for someone raised in Belfast. One scene in particular  showing that a Georgian cannot be distinguished from a Chechen – and vice versa – comes across as a bit too heavy-handed.

Consequentially, the film does not feel entirely new but sees familiar tropes played out on a foreign landscape. Expectations are usually met, the plot progressing largely without much surprise. Despite its tropes and often-formulaic narrative, there is still an emotional line running through the centre of the movie and it is often powerful, relatable and moving. It is rather like a familiar song that hits all the right notes.

The tragedy of war is shown to be inescapable and destruction even affects those who adopt a neutral stance. There is no ambiguity in the film being a strong advocate of pacifism.  The universal scenario of the disputed territory and competing land claims, functions not only as a historical drama but also as a moral fable.

The triumphs of the film are ultimately its relatability, its emotional core, and its satisfying narrative turns, which are both different and familiar. A master class in storytelling if not originality, it is captivating, emotionally enthralling, provides necessary closure, and may perhaps trigger thought about the film’s three main themes: humanity, family and war. The acting cannot be faulted, with much of the film is conveyed through expressions, action and even silence. Tangerines is an enjoyable movie and well worth a watch, especially for those wanting to expand their knowledge of foreign cinema.

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