In Tangerines, old men pick fruit in a battle zone, and force two opposing soldiers into an uneasy truce.
While Tangerines may seem an odd title for a tightrope-tense wartime drama, stranger still is that the principal players actually spend most of their time onscreen sipping tea. “No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,” David Byrne yelps in the Talking Heads' “Life During Wartime” and, as though even this declaration is burning up valuable minutes, “I ain't got time for that now.” The talk of general paranoia and vans full of weapons in the song's lyrics definitely match the mood of Estonia's official 2015 Academy Award entry. As for “lovey dovey,” the closest thing to romance in writer-director Zaza Urushadze's Tangerines—in which all female characters, mothers, wives, granddaughters, are represented only as memories and photographs—is the idealistic way in which soldiers initially view the glories of battle or the way the older characters, believing themselves wiser, view the homes they've made for themselves and refuse to abandon as Estonians in the violently contested Georgian-Abkhaz territory circa 1992. But conflict or not, Tangerines’ main characters seem to have plenty of time to spare.
Their families have since fled to safer territory, but elderly neighbors Estonians Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nüganen) have remained behind, hoping to harvest one last tangerine crop before the seemingly unavoidable war sweeps through. But even as Margus hurries to pluck his fruit before it rots in the trees and Ivo struggles to build boxes to ship them in, both men retain the air of retirees puttering around empty family homes that have grown too large for them. That they amble in the future paths of tank treads seems of secondary concern to the quotidian chores they've assigned themselves, simultaneously giving themselves a false sense of control in these familiar tasks.
When machine gun-toting mercenary Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) approaches Ivo’s workshop demanding food, Ivo treats the intrusion almost like the unexpected arrival of beloved, or at least tolerated, relative, who will help break up the tedious, time-killing nature of one’s twilight years. Little wonder Ahmed takes to calling him “grandpa.” And like a frustrated youngster confronting his doddering old relatives, Ahmed brings a clear-eyed perspective to the elderly men’s plans to harvest, ship, and sell citrus fruit in the middle of a battle zone.
The question of what exactly constitutes futile behavior during wartime becomes crucial as the fighting comes closer. Aside from tangerine harvesting, there are bodies to bury, bombed-out vehicles to clear from the roadways, and the wounded to treat. Ahmed, now bleeding to death from gunshot wounds, has returned, and Ivo seems to think it worth his time to nurse him back to health. Margus, concerned for his tangerines, worries Ivo won’t get his boxes built in time to ship. Ivo, perhaps having seen the light, tells Margus he thinks making business deals concerning tangerines at a time like this is “stupid.”
After he regains consciousness, Ahmed does not protest Ivo’s decision to forget about the damn tangerines, of course. He does, however, think it a ludicrous waste of time for Ivo to also care for Nika (Misha Meskhi), a Georgian soldier with a shard of shrapnel from an antitank missile embedded in his brain, a missile Ahmed fired. Even if Ivo succeeds in saving Nika’s life, Ahmed reasons, he would just have to kill Nika anyway. Better and more time-efficient to just let the Georgian die. Ivo, who later insists this conflict “belongs” to nobody, refuses to choose sides between Ahmed and Nika, forbidding either to kill the other while they recuperate inside his home.
This might sound like the setup for a dark Eastern European sitcom, but Tangerines’ spare punch lines go for the gut in a different way. Urushadze is more interested in exploring our reaction to wars we can't control or avoid, how we decide our responsibilities on the battlefield, and whether any individual human action has any meaning in the scope of subjective existentialism.
After pushing a military vehicle off the side of a cliff, Margus watches disappointed as it barrel rolls to an anticlimactic stop. “I thought it was going to explode,” he says. Ivo explains that only happens in the movies. “The cinema is one big cheating,” he says. Tangerines, never allowing its characters any such easy tricks, ultimately seems to offer Ivo only one constructive criticism concerning how he spends his time: Make those wooden boxes man-sized.