At it’s heart, Tangerines is a moral tale. It has a very simplistic anti-war agenda but at the same time it transcends all the trappings of such a film and becomes something else. It would be somewhat suitable to describe it as Winter Sleep meets The Burmese Harp if it were directed by the Dardenne Brothers.
The film is about men of different ages caught in the currents of a looming war. The war is between Georgians and Abkhazians, in the early nineties, sometime after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ivo, the oldest is an Estonian man living in a village-turned-ghost town. He makes wooden crates all day long to help his friend and neighbour Margus harvest a good produce of tangerines. Margus, also Estonian, is much younger and a simple man who also remained in the village, to harvest his tangerines for one last time and then move to Estonia. The other two men are sworn enemies, brought together by fate after having survived in a crossfire between their respective groups of soldiers and nursed back to good health by Ivo.
While the premise sounds like the start of a poor joke (two Estonians, a Chechen and a Georgian sit around a table and have tea), the film manages to become a strong chamber drama with a good sprinkle of social realism added in. Urushadze’s camera has a stillness that is reminiscent of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The stillness is a mirror of Ivo’s level-headedness, even in a time of war when everything around him is burning to the ground. Most of the film takes place inside Ivo’s house.
The film has a texture that is warm inside the house and cold outside it. When we are inside Ivo’s house, we feel safe and well-fed but the moment we step outside of it, an unsettling fear looms over us. Ivo is our protector, our grandfather. His Christopher Lee-like tall presence assures us that if anything were to happen to us, it will be over his dead body. The film is also severely drenched in masculinity. It’s wartime– the harmful play of men. The only female presence in the film is a photograph of Ivo’s grand-daughter. She is there to be looked at and her beauty admired in an innocent way. She seems the only thing that is pure and pretty in the ugly grey clouds of war. Perhaps, this is what the Tangerines represent– innocence and simplicity. Margus and Ivo are trying to harvest a bountiful crop not because they want to get rich but because they feel its a waste to let a good crop go uncherished. Even in the middle of war, they will do what is necessary to keep life going.
Tangerines, in the end is a rather simplistic film with a rather straightforward message, like the aforementioned fruit. They are just fruit and these men are just trying to harvest them. In the same way, this is just a film about the loss people experience in war– loss of life, humanity, innocence etc.