It’s a marvelously acted character piece from Estonia, and it was one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at this past Academy Awards ceremony. If you say that “Tangerines” has individual moments, that ultimately end up being more impressive than the sum of its parts–I wouldn’t argue. But those individual parts are so good, that it definitely pushed the film to the next level for me. “Tangerines” is very well-acted, and Lembit Ulfsak, as Ivo, supplies one of my favorite performances of the year. He’s terrific, and it’s a brilliant quartet of a central cast, overall. In fact, its short intense run time, and its claustrophobic setting, enables it to work like a stage play. It’s really engrossing theatre.
It’s the early 1990’s, and war is all around the rural farming village of Abkhazia (Georgia). Many of the area Estonians have fled to safer ground, but two stubborn tangerine growers remain to tend to their crops. Ivo (Mr. Ulfsak) is the elderly holdout, while Margus (Elmo Nuganen) is his younger neighbor. Their respective homes are just a short woodsy walk distance, so the men tend to check on each other semi-regularly. But when a small battle breaks out near Ivo’s property, an incredible dilemma comes into play. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen soldier, and an opposing Georgian combatant named Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), are the only surviving battlers–but both are wounded. They are taken into Ivo’s home, and nursed back to health by Ivo and Margus. Then, as the warriors heal, the farmers spend ample time trying to keep the soldiers from killing each other in retaliation.
“Tangerines” was beautifully shot on a gorgeous location in Guria, Georgia, and it was written and directed by the Georgian filmmaker Zaza Urushadze. Are the characters too thinly drawn in this 87-minute corker? I guess that’s a legitimate complaint. But the four chief participants in this morality tale greatly expand their character arcs with their intense and thoughtful interpretations. Mr. Ulfsak is a standout, and his quiet gravitas as Ivo is quite palpable. You never get the feeling that he’s working, as he deftly handles the onscreen drama. It’s a completely lived-in performance, that is both powerful and believable. All four men have their shining moments, but Ulfsak certainly always seems like he’s in charge–guns all around him, or not. When the studied first hour of the film finally shifts direction in the third act, the character of Ivo always appears calm and focused.
I don’t consider “Tangerines” the finest of the Oscar-nominated quintet…for that I would flip a coin between the flamboyant “Wild Tales” from Argentina, or winner “Ida” from Poland (reviews of both of those can be found here on the blog, along with Russia’s “Leviathan” and Mauritania’s “Timbuktu”). But “Tangerines” is strong and highly watchable–even if, admittedly, mildly shallow.