Monday, 6 July 2015


A formula is beginning to take shape amongst acclaimed foreign features. The directional styles of Russian drama Leviathan, Aghar Farhadi's The Past and now Estonian-Georgian feature Tangerines echo each other, their resounding similarities a distraction from their storytelling integrity. Such familiar traits include the use of minimal editing, careful, naturalistic dialogue and mundane goings-on, interrupted by jarring, sensationalist events. They test the viewer's patience, an implied promise of lurid payoff always lingering at the back of our minds. The general intention of this stylistic choice is to assert that such destructive events of suicide, brutalities of civil war and political reverence are jarring, events that can never be expected in the mundane sensibilties of everyday life. This formula is evidently suffice to solicit an Oscar nomination but striking content, the Academy makes clear, is only a baseline requirement. Critics argue greater artistic license should be exercised to distinguish these features, noting the unusual photographic techniques of Ida, the emotional prowess of Blue is the Warmest Color and the decorative, expansive scope of The Great Beauty. So in answering the question of whether this new formula detracts from the quality of the feature? In terms of originality it does devaluate the viewer experience but Tangerines does well in compensating its predictable narrative with absorbing dialogue and a palpable chemistry between rich, layered characters.

Tangerines captures the simple life of an ageing Estonian immigrant, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), during the violent conflict of Soviet Russia's dissolution in 1992. He and another immigrant farmer, Margus (Elmo Nüganen), remain in Georgia with the intention of harvesting a final crop of tangerines. But the war advances rapidly, violent conflict befalls on their very doorstep and Ivo takes in two wounded soldiers from opposite sides, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian. Gratitude and respect for their peaceful saviour keeps bloodshed from inside Ivo's home, vow as they may that once they have recovered and step outside of Ivo's household oasis, war will proceed. 

Tangerines is a sobering human drama which carries with it, a simple moral message about harmony, order, peace and pacifism. Ivo acts as a reluctant mediator to two impassioned soldiers driven by patriotism. He probes their appreciation for the sanctity of life by questioning their right to kill and watches as humanity triumphs over violent ideals. Animosity rises and builds between the two men, their disputes titter dangerously between mild divergence of values and flagrant death threats. However, as the two men encounter one another with Ivo enforcing peace in his household, enemies become humanised and the war demoralised. Their once violent resolves crumble around their feet as the soldiers dine together and speak with one another, affiliated by a mutual regard for Ivo's kindness. It plays out in smouldering fashion, a microscopic human drama transpiring in the context of civil warfare. A sombre tone is matched by modest ambitions, a simple moral matched by simple editing - its message, perhaps not one of novel insight but of celebrated clarity. 

The brutalities of the civil war are set against the rural backdrop of scenic Georgia, blood drips unceremoniously onto pastoral greens, gunfire erupts jarringly, kicking up dirt, and bodies pile up and then sink below the soil. The visuals are strangely reminiscent of the dystopian visions so popular with young adult audiences, such as the British apocalyptic feature How I Live Now. The feature is laced with a spectral, traditional Georgian score but concludes with an 80s pop song, similar to the musical structure of Léon the Professional - a film plagued notably by strictly classical music until the conclusion where the audience is left with a 90s Sting song. 

The film may depict the explicit conflict the between the soldiers, but it is really Ivo which harbours the challenging values. The soldiers, Niko and Ahmed, are patrons of patriotism and honour, pro-active and vocal in their resolves. Ivo is only quietly demonstrative in his ploy to instil a sense of compassion and humanity to those around him. The interactions between the two parties of peaceful Estonians and war-hardened soldiers makes for 88 minutes of tactile tension. The film is built upon jarring events, Ivo making tea and brewing sensitivity in his guests one minute and burying bodies in shallow graves the next. In the very least Tangerines joins the ranks of music, film and literature which serve as references to the plight of military conflict and the comparative appeal of pacifism. Given its subtle manipulation of the audience, Tangerines is only beautifully convincing.



  1. Great review! I saw this is going to be on Netflix soon, so I'm looking forward to that. I can't say I've ever seen an Estonian film before.

    1. Thank you! Definitely worth a watch. Neither have I -great to see such a small film being noticed at the Oscars.