“What is wrong with you, young men? All the time, I will kill, I will kill... Who gave you the right for that?"
I wasn’t familiar with Estonian cinema before Mandariinid (Tangerines), but I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for Zaza Urushadze’s upcoming projects because this was a fulfilling experience. I know the Academy doesn’t always get it right, but at least it gives me a chance to check out films that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. Urushadze’s greatest strength as a director here comes from focusing on the story, which he also wrote. It is a simple anti-war film with a powerful narrative and strong performances that benefit from an interesting premise. Urushadze doesn’t try to astonish the audience with great visuals or overload us with gruesome action scenes like most war films, but rather focuses on the humanity of each character and does so by centering the story in a small local community where only two men remain. He reduces the Civil War taking place in the Apkhazian region and focuses it on how it affects two local Estonians who have decided to stay in their farmland instead of seeking safety back in Estonia. Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nuganen) are neighbors who work together. Margus has a tangerine plantation (which explains the somewhat terrible title) and Ivo is a carpenter who makes the boxes for their transportation so they collaborate together. Since the war broke out, everyone in the land has returned to Estonia, but these two men have decided to stay. Ivo is a determined and wise old man who doesn’t take sides in the war. When a conflict breaks out in front of their home, two soldiers are seriously injured and Ivo takes them into his home. The soldiers (Giorgi Nakashidze and Misha Meskhi) are enemies and we are expecting the tension to break out once they fully recover. Ivo knows this, but he also believes he can teach them a lesson through his acts of kindness during this terrible time of war. The film is effective and accomplishes its purpose of delivering its anti-war message by focusing on the humanity of each one of the characters.
Lembit Ulfsak delivers the best performance of the film. He gives a quiet and calmed performance. Despite all the hate and hurtful things the two soldiers say to each other, he is always the voice of reason reminding them that they all share the same land and have equal rights. Ulfsak expresses this inner peacefulness very well from the opening scene in which some local soldiers come searching for food. He is the kind of person that would help anyone, even those that consider him an enemy. Elmo Nuganen is also solid as Margus who has a strong relationship with Ivo and looks up to him. When the two injured soldiers appear at their doorsteps the balance is disrupted and the war comes knocking home. So we clearly see how war takes its toll on everyone, even those who have nothing to do with the fighting, affecting their business and their lifestyle. Giorgi Nakashidze and Misha Meskhi deliver solid roles as these enemies who call a truce out of respect for Ivo while they are in his home. I found the simple premise for this film as a strong way to carry out its message by reducing the big scale of the war to a small local village, but still portraying it as something terrible. Some might consider this too simple of a story or too improbable, but I think it was a quite affecting way to deliver its message. I enjoyed how Zaza Urushadze decided to approach this material and would definitely recommend it.