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With 83 countries in this year’s foreign language Oscar race, competition is stiff, and predictions are tricky. One of the strongest contenders is the entry from Estonia, Tangerines. Although the subject of civil war within the former Soviet countries has been tackled in other movies, this retelling is one of the most concise and affecting. Perhaps it works because it focuses on just a few characters and yet crystallizes the entire tragic history of the region. The film probably needs a nomination from either the Academy or the Hollywood Foreign Press to secure an American release, but it is sure to touch viewers who see it.
The film takes place in 1992, during the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia that displaced many people. Among the displaced were many Estonians who lived in the area but returned to their homeland during the war. However, two Estonian men remain in a village in order to harvest the season’s crop of tangerines. While they are going about their business, they get caught in the crossfire between two small bands of rival soldiers. Two of the fighters survive. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze) is a Chechen mercenary on the Abkhazian side, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi) is a Georgian. Both are badly wounded, but the two Estonians take them in and nurse them back to health. Although the two rival combatants vow to kill each other once they have recovered, their time spent convalescing softens their belligerence.
That’s really all there is to the story, and it’s certainly not a novel one. But the film turns out to be highly effective, thanks to the skills of the actors and director Zaza Urushadze. Nakhashidze captures the brutishness of the Chechen without denying his humanity. Meskhi makes a good foil. Niko was an actor before the fighting raged, and Meskhi suggests the diffidence of a more reluctant warrior. But the strongest performance comes from veteran Lembit Ulfsak as the older Estonian man who shelters the two enemies in his home. His character, Ivo, has obviously suffered his own losses, and Ulfsak conveys the necessary world weariness, along with a deep-seated compassion that comes from observing senseless hostilities over the course of a lifetime.
Director Urushadze films the rural landscapes with a poetic but unsentimental eye, so that when the bucolic scenes are blasted by gunfire, the impact is even greater. The wistful, melancholy score by Niaz Diasamidze subtly enhances the film’s power. This story is obviously destined to end badly, but the mournful, oddly redemptive conclusion seems exactly right.
Production: Allfilm, Cinema24.
Cast: Lembit Ulfsak, Mikheil Meskhi, Giorgi Nakhashidze, Elmo Nuganen, Raivo Trass.
Director-screenwriter: Zaza Urushadze.
Producer: Ivo Felt.
Director of photography: Rein Kotov.
Production designer: Thea Telia.
Costume designer: Simon Machabeli.
Editor: Alexander Kuranov.
Music: Niaz Diasamidze.
No rating, 86 minutes.
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