Filmmaking is an expendable luxury in wartime, laments one of the characters in the humanist parable “Tangerines,” Estonia’s first Oscar nominee in the Foreign Language Film category. Cinema may be full of lies, but peace would not have forced an out-of-work actor to arm himself with a rifle and a willingness to kill to maintain a sense of self.
Perhaps it’s that remembrance of artistic deprivation that’s led Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze to use his filmmaking for loftier purposes. Though it has nearly as many guns as it does characters, “Tangerines” is an anti-war manifesto, an impassioned testament to the belief that it takes only a bit of time and common sense for enemies to start seeing and treating each other as fellow human beings, even friends. It might be willfully naïve, but it also successfully argues that the path to peace begins with a laying down of not only guns, but also cynicism and distrust.
Elderly orchard farmer Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) has already seen plenty of war, but war insists on a new visit, pounding on his front door and demanding to be let in. A small band of Chechen mercenaries, led by the gruff but charming Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), make claims on Ivo’s food.
Soon after they leave, Ahmed’s men die in a firefight with their Georgian foes, whose sole survivor is Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), the actor mentioned above. A former refugee who fled his native Estonia, Ivo takes in and nurses the Muslim Ahmed and the Christian Niko — both gravely injured — and makes them promise that neither will attempt to massacre the other while they’re under his roof.
Neither Ahmed nor Niko gets the chance to explain his political point of view to his enemy. Urushadze has made a universal film, not a local one, which means that key details about the 1992-93 War in Abkhazia, during which the action is set, are made narratively irrelevant. (A quick summary: The Abkhazian ethnic group sought to separate from the Georgian state and enlisted the help of Russian, including Chechen, soldiers of fortune to do so.) The result is so modest in ambition and scope that one wishes Urushadze had delved deeper into either the region’s historical background or the script’s characterizations.
Despite the enmity between Ahmed and Niko, the greater battle in “Tangerines” is actually the one between Ivo’s war-weary pacifism and Ahmed’s restless pugnacity. While Ivo checks in on his crop-obsessed neighbor Margus (Elmo Nüganen), the mercenary heaves toward his weakened adversary with a kitchen knife, determined to keep fighting even if it kills him. Ulfsak and Nakashidze make for a wonderful squabbling pair, locking horns as quietly and as respectfully as they might’ve played a chess game in a different world.
The tangerines provide the only color in the mildly claustrophobic green-gray drama. (Formally speaking, Urushadze’s film isn’t too far from the shot-in-an-apartment indies made every week here at home.) But the springtime luster of those fruits is a trap; like the land they grow on, they seem to offer hope for the future, but are ultimately indifferent to who demands which parcel of land and how much blood is spilled trying to maintain those claims of ownership.
Eventually, more men come knocking on Ivo’s door, seeking the deaths of this group or that. The film doesn’t have anything new to tell them, or us. War is brutal and senseless and would be laughably absurd if it didn’t cause so much widespread, unnecessary destruction and suffering. “Tangerines” is a heartfelt reminder of that fact, but not a particularly essential one.