Tangerines is playing at Plymouth Arts Centre from 23-29 October.
The conflicts that savaged much of Europe and the former Soviet Union during the nineties remain mostly invisible in the world of film. They are much less discussed than, say, the Second World War, where distance and a deceptively simple narrative have made it a solid and continued money-spinner. By contrast, the minefield of factions, infighting and ethnic- cleansing that consumed Eastern Europe and the Caucasus is mostly off limits, even though they happened pretty much on our doorstep and within living memory for many of us.
Tangerines, by Georgian director and screenwriter Zaza Urushadze, attempts to untangle the effects of one of these conflicts, although its message is universal. It concerns the story of Ivo, originally from Estonia and long-living in a foreign land, who tends a tangerine orchard with his friend, Margus. Ivo mostly spends his days in solitude building crates for the fruit, while Margus spends his picking them from the branches.
But the quiet cannot last and it is not long before we discover the peace in which they live is an illusion. After being intimidated by members of a local militia, Ivo’s house is then caught in a crossfire between rival gangs. From the bloodshed Ivo pulls out two sole survivors – one on each side – and brings them into his home to nurse them back to health. When they realise the situation, the two convalescents swear revenge on each other, but out of respect for Ivo they will wait until they have recuperated and left. Yet in spite of this animosity, these two unhappy bedfellows must now also break bread together. The fragile peace that develops from this standoff leads to a fascinating examination of the parties’ hatred wrenched out of context.
Through all this we learn more about Ivo as well. Unlike him, most of Ivo’s friends and family have returned from Georgia to Estonia, deciding to pocket reparations over the principle of staying behind. Yet even though Ivo’s background has made him a stranger in this land, it also makes him a suitable mediator in the hostilities taking place under his own roof.
Together this creates an absorbing snapshot of characters caught in the teeth of events, much more shrewdly shown than a laborious historical retelling would have been. The image of the delicate tangerines left rotting on the vine while the world tears itself to shreds is more subtle and in some ways more troubling than if we were shown scenes of outright barbarity. This is not to say that the film does not have its moments of violence, however, although Urushadze shows only just enough, particularly at the conclusion, to tell his simple story most effectively.
It is not always an easy watch, nor should it be. But Tangerines succeeds where most war films do not – by convincingly showing the senselessness of war and its poisonous effects on a human scale. That it does this while still leaving some room for hope is doubly impressive.