A Film Review
By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The orchard of tangerines never gets harvested. That’s the way it is with war. People die, and the beautiful things go to waste.
Tangerines, a cinematic collaboration between Estonia and Georgia, with additional support from the European Union, is very very political. And yet, the first time I saw it, the political content was nearly obscured by the deep humanity of it, the hauntingly apt and spare dialog, the extraordinarily sensitive acting by an all male cast and the exquisite pathos of the last scene which produces a heart-wrenching click! We learn why Ivo has clung so tenaciously to his patch of Abkhazia.
Yes, the film is set in that tiny “nation” on the shores of the Black Sea, one of the ethnic enclaves that Vladimir Putin pried loose from Georgia, just as he is now subverting as much of Ukraine as he can, en route to restoring the imperial reach of the Soviet Union. It took a mini war to detach Abkhazia from Georgia. Tangerines illustrates the divide-and-conquer tactics and the human cost of making ex-satellites pay for the temerity of refusing close association with Russia once they have a choice of allies. The film is sub-titled in English. The actual dialogue shifts from Russian to Estonian to Chechen to Georgian, depending on who is speaking to whom, although Russian is the only universally shared tongue for all these products of Moscow-imposed Tsarist and Soviet rule.
Here’s the little known fact around which the story is built: for nearly 100 years there was a distinctive pocket of Estonians in Abkhazia. When Russia forced a war on Georgia in 1992, most of them packed up and left for a free, democratic, post-Soviet Estonia. The film’s narrative is built around three elderly Estonians who remain behind: Margus, an orchard-owner who needs to get his tangerines picked and sold before he can afford to leave; a physician who is scheduled to rejoin his wife and children in Estonia within days; and Ivo, friend and neighbor to Margus. Ivo, a tangerine crate maker, refuses to leave his land for deep private reasons he declines to divulge until that last scene. The three Estonians live in a remote, almost idyllic valley, staying in touch with the world via radio. They are acutely aware that hot war at its worst could could barrel down the spring-muddy road any day, any hour.
And so it does: a fire fight between six Georgians in a van and two jeep-driving Chechen mercenaries fighting for Russia. Two men survive: a sassy young Georgian and a gruff, middle-aged Chechen, both obsessed with honor. Ivo and Margus bury the dead, carry the wounded men into Ivo’s house and fetch their doctor friend, who manages to save two lives despite horrible wounds. When the two men stagger weakly to their feet again, what they most want is revenge. They want to kill one another.
And they would have, except for one thing. They owe their lives to Ivo, who lays down the law. No killing under my roof. How can they, honorably, object?
Time goes by. Tea is drunk. Simple meals are shared. Everyone listens to the radio. Niko and Ahmed get stronger. And little by little a human miracle happens. The Georgian and the Chechan begin to feel a certain warmth toward one another, a certain sense of being brothers in the home of Ivo, their spiritual father/grandfather. Eventually it becomes clear that they will not kill one another. Not in the house. Not outdoors.
But the outside world has not progressed so beneficently. Heavily armed, belligerent militias arrive. Georgians. Abkhazians. None with an axe to grind against the unimportant Estonians. All ready to kill their ethnic enemies. Each militia is cleverly dispatched. The odd family of four manipulate supposedly fixed identities so that no one needs to be surrendered, no one needs to be shot. A new world has been created, one in which all men are kin.
And then comes a Russian patrol. The Russians pick a fight with Ahmed, the Chechan, unwilling to believe that this unlikely resident of a run down Estonian bungalow has fought on their side. They’re about to execute him when Niko, the Georgian, watching from behind a curtain, decides it’s time to grab the guns Ivo has stashed away. Rapid crossfire ensues. Niko is killed. So is Margus. And so are all the Russians. (Good riddance, from the point of view of the Estonian and Georgian producers, who thus finger the real villains of the war!)
And so much for paradise on earth.
The last moments of the film present us with a burial scene on a knoll overlooking the Black Sea. Ivo and Ahmed are laying Niko to rest beside Ivo’s son, who (we now learn) was killed in the first days of the war. We don’t know for sure who killed him. Probably Georgians. It doesn’t really matter. Dead is dead. And Ivo clearly has no intention of abandoning the land that holds his son.
Ahmed is touched. “You bury this Georgian next to your own son?” he asks, in amazement. “And if I were in Niko’s place?” Ivo smiles and says, “The same, but a few feet further away.” Ahmed, after all, is Muslim, not Christian. Ahmed smiles, a wonderful, crinkly-eyed smile on a battered, stubbly Chechen face, a smile full of a son’s affection for an elderly father.
So Tangerines is a very political film, but it is more important than that. It is a very powerful anti-war film.