Yet another fruitless war: Tangerines ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2015)

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So there was this card-carrying commie banjo player named Pete Seeger, who used to perform an antiwar singalong called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The lyrics are essentially a set of rhetorical questions, ending with a haunting refrain “…when will we ever learn?” Apparently, the answer to that last question is: “Never?” At least, judging from the fact that 60 years after that song was written, wars continue to rage all over the world. Yet people keep singing that silly tune, in the vain hope that those who hold the power to wage them will listen, and that its message will finally sink in: Wars are dumb.

Card-carrying dumb.

Pete Seeger based his lyrics on a passage from a traditional Cossack folk song lamenting the fruitlessness of war. I only mention this because it so happens the latest antiwar film to inquire as to the whereabouts of the flowers also originates from the steppes of Russia.

Tangerines is an Estonian-Georgian production written and directed by Zaza Urushadze. Urushadze sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the somewhat politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 1990s. Although this bloody civil war is raging quite literally on the doorstep of their sleepy little hamlet, two crusty Estonian men with adjoining properties, woodworker Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and farmer Margus (Elmo Nuganen) are more concerned with harvesting Margus’ small tangerine crop and getting it to market before the fruit rots (or before the orchard itself becomes collateral damage).

However, faster than you can say “acceptable losses”, a sudden, violent skirmish erupts one evening, mere steps away from Ivo’s modest cottage. Ivo and Margus cautiously investigate the resultant carnage, and discover that there are two survivors: a Chechen mercenary, who is fighting for the separatists (Giorgi Nakashidze), and a Georgian government soldier (Mikheil Meskhi). Ivo takes both soldiers under his roof and begins to nurse them back to health. As these wounded men are sworn enemies of each other, you may already have an idea where this story is going. Or maybe you only think you do.

While there are obvious touchstones like All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, Urushadze’s film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters slowly come to recognize their shared humanity, so do we (after all, everyone bleeds the same color).

As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  As a great 20th Century English poet once wrote: You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.

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