Tangerines (2013, Zaza Urushadze)

Tangerines has such a profoundly straightforward plot and limited cast I expected it to be a stage adaptation. It’s not; writer and director Urushadze just knows how to perturb character development without theatrics. The film’s about the War in Abkhazia, but its protagonist isn’t Georgian or Abkhaz, rather an Estonian. The film itself does a fine job laying out the complicated particulars of the ground situation (with one lingual exception); I’m going to try getting straight to the film proper without recapping Wikipedia here.

The protagonist is carpenter Lembit Ulfsak. He makes crates for neighbor Elmo Nüganen, who is a tangerine farmer. They live in a now otherwise empty village; they’re both from Estonia; the village was mostly or entirely Estonian immigrants; everyone else has gone back to Estonia since the war broke out. The only time the film leaves the road where Ulfsak and Nüganen live is to go around the bend to the other side of Nüganen’s plantation. So it’s very finite, very focused. Urushadze keeps the film incredibly constrained, though it also shows how big the men’s worlds can feel.

The film starts with Chechen mercenaries, led by Giorgi Nakashidze, hitting Ulfsak up for food. The Chechens are just passing through. Nakashidze interrogates Ulfsak about his allegiances and history, but it’s not a bad encounter. It could’ve gone much worse, which Urushadze never describes in dialogue; instead just permeates through the mood. In fact, the Chechens are so satisfied with Ulfsak and his food donation they don’t even bother neighbor Nüganen.

Except when there’s finally fighting, it’s in front of Nüganen’s. The Chechens, in a jeep, have a firefight with some Georgians in a van. There are two survivors; one is Nakashidze, and the other is Georgian Misha Meskhi. Ulfsak’s going to help both of them, with Nüganen somewhat reluctantly assisting. Nüganen’s got to get the tangerine crop picked before the war reaches them and makes it impossible, so he’s busy. Ulfsak’s got to make him crates in time for the helpers Nüganen’s arranged; the timing provides Tangerines a built-in structure, which is a nice move. And one of the reasons the film feels like a stage adaptation. Even though the film’s cagey about the ground situation, it’s incredibly robust.

Ulfsak and Nüganen enlist local doctor Raivo Trass—another Estonian heading home any day now—who manages to get both soldiers stable enough to recover. Nakashidze wakes up first and is very unhappy to hear Ulfsak’s housing enemy Meskhi, though once Meskhi joins the action, he’s not much happier. In fact, he’ll prove more actively hostile.

The first act sets up the impromptu recovery ward, including some specifics about how Ulfsak keeps house and the relationship between Ulfsak and Nüganen. The second act starts with Nakashidze and Ulfsak continuing their arc from the first scene, the two men learning more about one another, though each has hard limits on how much they’re going to share. However, once Meskhi’s well enough to join everyone in the kitchen, Nakashidze’s hostility towards him puts he and Ulfsak’s quasi-friendship in immediate jeopardy.

Because Nüganen’s got nowhere else to go (and no one else to see), he hangs out with them too, which doesn’t aggravate the situation as much as emphasize its tensions. Nüganen’s the impartial observer. He’ll eventually get a character development arc of his own; the film starts the work on it early. Of course, Urushadze always starts work early, deliberately laying the foundation for where the film be headed later on. A lot is going on with Tangerines, obviously. The film addresses stoicism, toxic masculinity, jingoism, religiosity, and bigotry, but never outside the context of its characters. The men are also incredibly private. Nüganen knows Ulfsak’s backstory, but there’s no reason for him to exposition dump to get ahead of Ulfsak wanting to share it. Nakashidze and Meshki are both tangled clumps of unasked questions and refused answers. The film doesn’t unravel them; it reaches in and pulls out one or two strands to examine before returning them to the mess.

As a director, Urushadze’s got a remarkable, fervent confidence in his actors. He asks a lot of them for the film’s runtime, only escalating as it progresses—at the start, he’s only really worrying about Ulfsak and Nakashidze, but then adds Meskhi and Nüganen’s performances to the mix. The actors have to do the exact right amount of character development—usually in how their expressions change throughout a scene; even when they get to do something (relatively) theatrical, Tangerines brings it back down to the character observing how the other characters are experiencing that behavior. The hardest part is Ulfsak’s, especially since he’s got the most mystery to him. The best performance is probably Nakashidze, but it’s also the showiest. Meshki, who starts the film silent, is then the most impressive because his recovery’s often onscreen and dramatic.

It’s excellent direction from Urushadze, especially since the first half of Tangerines is deliberately understated. His composition is usually about helping the performances along, only occasionally zooming out to give a physical context. Actually, after the first act—when they’re still dealing with the firefight’s literal damage—Urushadze might not use any expositional long shots at all. It’s all about the characters and their experiences of the events.

Great photography from Rein Kotov and production design from Tea Telia. Alexander Kuranov’s editing is notable in its unassuming naturalness. Similarly, whenever the film needs Niaz Diasamidze’s music, it’s right on, but it doesn’t need it often.

Tangerines starts pretty good and keeps getting better. The third act is phenomenal and elevates the film even more. Urushadze doesn’t really bring everything together so much as reveal the two everythings going on—the four men stuck in a challenging but not inherently dangerous situation, the war around them—and how those two threads are tragically inseparable.

It’s a great film. Urushadze, Nakashidze, Ulfsak, and Meshki all do outstanding work.

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