Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines opens in a tiny village in Eastern Europe—Abkhazia, Georgia to be exact—as a frail, old Estonian man named Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) meticulously constructs crates one slab of wood at a time. It’s the early 1990s and there is a war in the region that has forced many inhabitants to seek refuge elsewhere. But on one uncommon day, Ivo’s tedious work is interrupted when two soldiers stop in and ask for food. With a word of warning of other men who may come through the village, they exit, leaving Ivo to find Margus, the only other remaining person in the village. The two grow tangerines and ship them, but as they are about to find out, their work may be cut short by being caught in the crosshairs of war.
Shortly after Ivo tells Margus of the possibility of more men coming, gunfire is heard from near the road. Blood is spilt around the area, and while most of the men who were shooting at one another have died, two soldiers, each from opposing sides—Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian—survive. Ivo and Margus decide to nurse them back to health, as the two men, all the while, decide to kill the other in an act of honor.
Having two people whose ideological beliefs are diametrically opposed to one another under one house is, ostensibly, what bleak Eastern European art house dramas are made for. It isn’t necessarily bothersome that this kind of allegory is so transparent in its motivations. It’s an obvious filmmaking conceit to create a discourse between the two sides and, by placing it in a neutral zone such as Ivo’s workplace, examine the repercussions the actual War of Abkhazia (1992 – 1993) had on other people. But, as is the unfortunate case with Tangerines, it acts as a slight barrier in that the director should put in a great deal of effort to make this particular iteration of the scenario affecting and potent.
The concept and set-up are not enough and yet Urushadze focuses too tightly on this schematic situation. And, consequently, the film feels overly plotted and none of its principles feel particularly urgent. Regardless of the didactic dialogue, which explicitly dissects the boundaries and politics of Estonia and Georgia, everything feels restrained to a fault. The tension isn’t tangible or discernible, so the political stakes of what this film is supposed to represent end up dissipating.
Intermittently, there’s a kind of deadpan humor that exists, which is lightens the tone and allows for some breathing room between more heavily scripted segments. But, for these supposed pillars of Estonian and Georgian masculinity, the film seems rather flat.
As Ivo, the proverbial Switzerland of the group, Ulfsak looks like Michael Haneke–but there’s no push to his performance. His acting is so languid and indifferent that the film becomes entirely drained of its last hope for potency. Most egregiously, Ulfsak doesn’t even imbue Ivo with any hint of ambivalence–an emotion that would probably serve the story better given the complexity of the history at hand. Instead, we are presented with portrayal devoid of spirit or singularity.
The idealistic path the film takes the audience on is that the two men are to see similarities within their vulnerabilities and to recognize the humanity in one another. That’s fine and good, but there’s little momentum to push us through with the narrative arc. As a result, Tangerines ends up being serviceably bleak, but rarely compelling.