Tangerines (Mandariinid) published by Sight & Sound, October 2015
Review: While Tangerines (Mandariinid) opens with a brief on-screen text describing the 1992 civil war between ethnic Georgians and Russian-supported Abkhaz separatists that sent most local Estonian settlers fleeing back home, the first images we see in the film are of ‘grandpa’ Ivo (Estonian acting legend Lembit Ulfsad) sawing wood in his workshop to make boxes. His profession as a carpenter is enough to bring to mind the coffin maker who figures prominently in Kurosawa Akira’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s reimagining A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – both set, like Tangerines, in middle-of-nowhere villages riven by conflict. Yet Ivo’s crates are being built neither to house corpses nor, as the Chechen mercenary Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze) who interrupts the old man’s woodwork suspects, to contain “bombs”, but rather for a more civilised purpose: to transport the tangerines that the village’s only other remaining inhabitant, Margus (Elmo Nüganen), hopes to pick before heading back to Estonia. Far from setting the village’s opposed forces against one another like the man-with-no-name protagonists of Kurosawa’s and Leone’s films, Ivo is a peacemaker, taking in under one roof both Ahmed and the Georgian volunteer fighter Niko (Mikhail Meskhi) after both are injured in a skirmish. There, he will gradually teach these two sworn enemies lessons in civics and humanity, even as the realities of war close in on the village’s idyll.
“Cinema is a big fraud,” declares Ivo to Margus and local doctor Juhan (Raivo Trass), explaining why the military van that they have just sent rolling over an incline did not explode like it would in the movies. Through these words, Georgian writer/director Zaza Urushadze (Three Houses, 2008; The Guardian, 2012) also positions Tangerines as occupying territories beyond the typical conventions of war movies – although it is, with its exploration of cross-cultural hostilities within a single domestic setting, somewhat reminiscent of Aleksander V. Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo (2009). Here spectacle is mostly kept to the periphery or the horizon, leaving Urushadze to focus on the mindset – and the grimly universal aftermath – of internecine strife. Much as in his former life Niko was an actor, occasionally appearing even in films (“They almost don’t make films over here anymore,” he complains with unintended reflexivity, “No money”), here everyone plays a rôle. The recovering Ahmed dresses in his host’s civilian clothes. When a militia arrives, Niko must pretend to be a mute Abkhaz soldier (under Ivo’s direction). Another Abkhaz militia will mistake Ahmed for a Georgian, and find itself under fire from both him and Niko together. Meanwhile Ivo, in this no-man’s-land for old men, has stopped seeing his guests in terms of sides, and hangs around (where others, including his surviving family, have left) to honour the dead.
With shots typically framed to show Ivo between Ahmed and Niko, Tangerines is a plea for reconciliation and understanding in a world of belligerent opposition. Ivo’s woodwork may eventually turn to coffin-making (as in Yojimbo), but his is the kind of carpentry associated with Jesus (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55), and by extension with his moral teachings and character. This Estonian-Georgian co-production is a bittersweet non-epic that finds just the right balance between hope and despair.
Synopsis: Abkhazia, Georgia, 1992. Where the other ethnic Estonians have fled their small village in the face of civil war, old carpenter Ivo and tangerine grower Margus have stayed behind. Wounded in a skirmish that kills all their comrades, the Chechen mercenary Ahmed and the Georgian volunteer Niko are taken in and tended by Ivo. Recovering quickly, Ahmed swears revenge on his bedridden enemy, but Ivo persuades him first to leave Niko alone until he has regained consciousness, and then not to attack Niko so long as he remains under the same roof. When an Akhbaz militia drops in, Ivo persuades both Ahmed and Niko to maintain the ruse that Niko is an Akhbaz. After this, when Niko steps outside, Ahmed does not attack him. At a tense outdoors dinner, Ivo insists on a drinking toast “to death”. Shortly afterwards, stray shells destroy Margus’ house and groves. Margus rejects Ahmed’s offer of payment to return to Estonia. A second Akhbaz militia arrives, and when their captain gives orders that Ahmed, believed to be a Georgian, be shot, Niko opens fire on the militiamen, and is helped by Ahmed. Crossfire kills Margus and Niko. Ivo buries Margus in his grove, and Niko by the grave of his own son (killed by Georgians). Ahmed heads off home.