“Tangerines” is beautiful

Ida, the Polish movie that won the Oscar for the best foreign film in 2014, is a more complicated movie, certainly. But Tangerines, nominated in the same year, is every bit as powerful.  Just to give you a sense of the part of the world where this takes place, you see Akkhasia at the tip of Georgia, which is sandwiched between Russia and Turkey.

I’d like to start my account at one of the two high points of this marvelous film. I will endtangerines 4 with the second.

Ivo’s house is a quiet place when the Georgians and the Abkhasians or their mercenary soldiers are not killing each other in the road in front of the house. In this scene, Ivo and his Georgian friend are sitting quietly at the table talking. Ivo has just learned that before Nika, the Georgian, enlisted in the army, he had been an actor. Ivo promises that when the fighting is over, he will come to Tblisi and see Nika act. “And,” he says, “Ahmed will come with me.” And he begins, slowly, to clap his hands together. Nika gets it and laughs with delight.

It’s a high point because Ivo and Nika came a very long way to get to that moment. Ivo and his neighbor, Margus, are among the last of the Estonians left in Abkhasia. Georgia is a former Soviet state about the size of South Carolina. Margus, at the right in the picture below, is the one who grows the tangerines.

Almost everyone has gone back to Estonia, but Margus (Elmo Nugannen) go because he is harvestingtangerines 3 tangerines and Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) can’t go because he is making the crates for Margus’s tangerines. [1] It’s a long way to Estonia, about 1500 miles, but, beginning in the 1850’s Tsar Alexander I began colonizing George with farmers from Estonia. Before the war that came with Abkhasia’s attempt to secede, there were a lot of Estonians in the region. Now there are Ivo and Margus.

And Ivo has house guests. Ahmed, a Chechen mercenary the Russians are paying to fight for Abkhasia, and Nika, a Georgian fighting to prevent that secession. Both men were near death when Ivo and Margus found them on the battlefield but each has recovered somewhat and now each is duty bound to kill the other.

That is how the movie begins. I am hoping that nothing I have said yet, explains why Ahmed and Ivo would come to Tblisi after the war to applaud Nika’s acting.

tangerines 2Ivo locks the two wounded men—one a Muslim and one a Christian, one a mercenary, one a patriot—in separate bedrooms. When they get well enough to pose a threat to each other, Ivo lays down the law. “No one can kill anyone in my house unless I want it to happen.” [1]

That brings about a completely impossible situation except that it makes this story possible. Ahmed, the mercenary Chechen and Nika, the patriotic Georgian, sit at opposite ends of the table drinking tea and eating bread and cheese. They don’t know each other as persons; only as individual members of a class called “enemies.” Each has killed some of the other’s friends, so hostility is natural, but it is also hard to hold on to in the quiet little house with the bread and tea.

The drive toward recognizing the humanity of the other is very strong in that setting and the integrity of the setting is guaranteed by Ivo’s authority as well as by the fact that both men recognize that they owe their lives to his intervention. “Our common status as human beings” seems the only relevant status. Acting on the status of “enemy” is forbidden, so they slide, they “backslide,” as their commanding officers would have put it, into “fraternizing with the enemy.” Except that in Ivo’s house, no one really seems like an enemy.

Only minutes after the high point I described, some soldiers show up. Nika gets the guns from under the bed where Ivo has hidden them and risks his life to save Ahmed from the soldiers. Nika is killed in the exchange of fire, as is Ivo’s neighbor Margus, and if falls to Ahmed and Ivo to bury them.

That brings us to the second high point. They bury Nika in a little plot overlooking the Black Sea, right next to Ivo’s son. Ahmed pushes Ivo about it. Who killed your son? It was, it turns out, Georgians who killed him; the people Ahmed was fighting against. But when Ivo responds, “Does it really matter?” Ahmed understands.

And as they stand there, they produce the second high point of the movie. When Ivo asks, “Would it really matter?” a thought occurs to Ahmed. “If I had died instead of Nika,” he asks, “Would you have buried me here?”

Ivo doesn’t answer immediately. The pause lengthens. “Yes,” he says finally, “but a little further away.” Ahmed smiles in return. It is a beautiful smile. It is a smile that sees the necessity of the answer and that savors the generosity it carries with it—and that finds the mix funny. The smile is the recognition of their comradeship. They are the two men left standing and they have done a good thing.

[1] A. O. Scott, who reviewed Tangerines for the New York Times said he was so impressed by Ulfsak’s performance that he looked up all his other films.  That would have taken a while.  Ulfsak is Estonia’s most famous actor.

[2] Ivo radiates authority. In the first scene, armed men came into his house demanding food. One of them takes the picture of Ivo’s beautiful granddaughter off the shelf and hands it to the other. Ivo intervenes.“Don’t comment. Don’t dare.” To soldiers ransacking his house for food! And they don’t. They put the picture back, take the food and a bottle of vodka, and leave.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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