A Tart Take On Bitter Realities In 'Tangerines'

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Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is a pacifist. But NPR film critic Bob Mondello says Tangerines is an "object lesson in the resilience of ancient animosities." (Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is a pacifist. But NPR film critic Bob Mondello says Tangerines is an "object lesson in the resilience of ancient animosities." (Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

It's 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union in the Oscar-nominated Tangerines, and in a bleak, northwest corner of the Republic of Georgia called Abkhazia, the world has more or less come apart. Warring factions — Chechen separatists, Georgian troops — patrol rural roads in jeeps outfitted with bazookas and machine guns. The locals have mostly fled for more urban areas.

Still, with war raging all around, Ivo (Lambit Ulfsak) is entirely absorbed in the task of making wooden crates. A nearby orchard owner wants to harvest one last crop before he abandons his fruit trees. So Ivo's working overtime when a couple of Chechen soldiers stop by, and start asking questions.

"What're the crates for," wonders one. "Bombs?"

Informed that they're for tangerines, the Chechen realizes he's hungry. So Ivo takes them to his house, fixes some food, and sends them on their way, only to hear gunfire after they've left. Running toward the orchard he sees two smoldering vehicles and a bunch of bodies. Also two badly wounded soldiers, one from each side.

With help from the orchard owner, he brings them back to his house to patch them up — the Muslim Chechen who'd asked about food, and a Georgian Christian who's just barely alive.

Tangerines has fun with its conflicts, says NPR film critic Bob Modnello. But the focus never strays from the long-standing religious and ethnic tensions.
Tangerines has fun with its conflicts, says NPR film critic Bob Modnello. But the focus never strays from the long-standing religious and ethnic tensions.

"No point treating him," growls the Chechen. "I'll whack him anyway."

Ivo extracts a promise that there'll be no killing in his house .

"Fine," says the Chechen. "When he goes outside, I'll do my thing."

And with the home secure Ivo and the orchard owner head back to site of the battle to hide the vehicles, so they won't attract the attention of other soldiers. They push the bazooka'd van over a nearby cliff, which proves oddly disappointing, at least in the eyes of the orchard owner.

"I thought it would would explode; they explode in cinema," he says.

"Cinema," replies Ivo, "is a big fraud."

For a while, because of exchanges like that, it feels as if Tangerines, which was Estonia's first nominee to make the final Oscar cut for Best Foreign Language film, is going to mimic Buster Keaton's silent comedy, Our Hospitality. In that one, remember, mortal enemies under the same roof are kept from from killing each other by sheer politeness toward their host. And while Tangerines is never actively comic, there is a certain wryness to writer/director Zaza Urushadze's approach to his characters as they trade insults and spar delicately over the finer points of their agreement not to slaughter each other indoors.

Still, the film's focus never strays from how time-hardened religious and ethnic tensions somehow trump everyone's better impulses. Ivo's pacifism may work wonders within the walls of his home. But as opposing armies close in — Christian and Muslim, Chechen and Georgian, and to the displeasure of pretty much everyone when they show up, Russian — Tangerines becomes an object lesson in the resilience of ancient animosities, and the limits, sadly, of common sense.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Citrus fruits are tart, juicy and delicious, but are they worth dying for? Our critic, Bob Mondello, found himself pondering that question while watching a movie. It was this year's foreign-language Oscar nominee from Estonia. The film is called "Tangerines."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It's 1992, and despite the war raging in his corner of the Republic of Georgia, Ivo just wants to finish making a whole bunch of wooden crates. Nearly all his neighbors have left the area out of fear of either Chechen separatists or Georgian troops, but a nearby orchard owner wants to harvest one last crop before he abandons his fruit trees. So Ivo is working overtime on crates for the fruit when a couple of Chechen soldiers stop by and start asking questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "What are the crates for?" wonders one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "Bombs?"

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

LAMBIT ULFSAK: (As Ivo, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "No, tangerines."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

ULFSAK: (As Ivo, foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "Tangerines are good," says the Chechen, realizing he's hungry. So Ivo takes them to his house, fixes some food and sends them on their way, only to hear gunfire after they've left.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

MONDELLO: He runs toward the orchard and sees two bazooka-d vehicles and a bunch of bodies - also two badly wounded soldiers, one from each side. With help from the orchard owner, he brings them back to his house to patch them up - the Muslim Chechen who'd asked about food and a Georgian Christian who's just barely alive. No point treating him, I'll whack him anyway, says the Chechen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: Ivo extracts a promise that there will be no killing in his house. Fine, says the Chechen, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "As soon as he goes out..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "...I'll do my thing." Meanwhile, to avoid attracting the attention of other soldiers, Ivo and the orchard owner are getting rid of all traces of the fight. They push the bazooka-d van over a nearby cliff, which proves oddly disappointing, at least in the eyes of the orchard owner.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

ELMO NUGANEN: (As Margus, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "I thought it would explode."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

NUGANEN: (As Margus, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "They explode in the cinema."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

ULFSAK: (As Ivo, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "Cinema," replies Ivo, "is a big fraud." Now, for a while, because of exchanges like that, I half-expected "Tangerines" to mimic the film "Our Hospitality," Buster Keaton's silent comedy where mortal enemies under the same roof are kept from killing each other by sheer politeness. "Tangerines" does have fun with the way the two soldiers trade insults and spar delicately over the finer points of their agreement not to slaughter each other indoors.

Still, the film's focus never strays from how time-hardened religious and ethnic tensions somehow trump everyone's better impulses. Ivo's pacifism may work wonders within the walls of his home, but as opposing armies close in - Christian and Muslim, Chechen and Georgian and, to the displeasure of pretty much everyone when they show up, Russian - "Tangerines" becomes an object lesson in the resilience of ancient animosities and the limits, sadly, of common sense. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.