Is Hollywood even capable of producing an unequivocal antiwar statement anymore? Among the recent Oscar nominees, the closest any American film came to an outright condemnation of killing was the blockbuster “American Sniper.” And that film was ambivalent at best, contributing to an already heated cultural debate about the film’s depiction of the necessity or futility of combat.
But buried among this year’s foreign-language nominees was another film that almost no one had seen, but whose sense of resignation mixed with despair about battle was both unmistakable and deeply moving. Set in the 1990s, in a war-torn corner of the Caucasus Mountains, the Estonian-Georgian production “Tangerines” is that great antiwar film that fans of the genre have been waiting for.
The film takes place in Abkhazia, a disputed region claimed by Georgia that is trying to separate from the former Soviet republic. Fighting against the Georgian army are Abkhazians, their Russian allies and miscellaneous mercenaries. As the film opens, almost every civilian has left the battleground, except for Margus (Elmo Nüganen), a tangerine farmer, and Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), a man who builds crates for his neighbor’s produce. Both are ethnic Estonians, a people with deep roots in this part of the world, as an on-screen title explains at the start of the film.
Into this no-man’s land wanders Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Muslim Chechen soldier of fortune fighting on the side of the Russians and Abkhazians, and Nika (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian volunteer. When both fighters are gravely wounded in a skirmish outside Margus’s house, Ivo decides to take them in and nurse them back to health, while at the same time struggling to keep them from killing each other.
Except for brief outbursts of violence, “Tangerines” is, like its hero Ivo, a stoic and introspective thing. The story moves slowly and methodically, tempering the expected — and only fleetingly heartwarming — rapprochement between enemies with a more acerbic outlook about human nature. Like a tangerine, it is a mix of sweet and acidic flavors.
Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze avoids histrionics or moralizing, relying on a strong cast that expresses the film’s central argument about war’s absurdity largely through taciturn action, not words. Although there are moments of quiet humor, “Tangerines” is mostly a tragedy, told via looks exchanged between heated adversaries and their imperturbable intermediary. Over the course of the film, those looks soften from glaring mistrust to acceptance to heartbroken endurance in the face of the meaninglessness and inevitability of death.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema.
Contains violence and obscenity. 87 minutes.