Friday, May 26, 2017

Zaza Urushadze | მანდარინები (Mandariinid) Tangerines

the kindness of strangers
by Douglas Messerli

Zaza Urushadze (writer and director) მანდარინები (Mandariinid) Tangerines / 2013, USA 2015

Estonian director Zaza Urushadze’s 2013 movie Tangerines (released in the US in 2015) is the kind of feel-good movie that international audiences love. Despite the violent clashes that the film depicts, focusing on the Russian-Georgian battles in the break-off region, Abkhazia, of the newly independent Georgia, this movie— through the gentle ministrations of Estonian farmer Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and his neighbor Margus (Elmo Nüganen)—brings together two warring enemies who learn to, at least, respect one another and who, by film’s end, are even willing to fight for one another’s survival.

If the film’s final premise is rather unbelievable, given what we’ve seen in other such battles—in the former Yugoslavia and currently in Ukraine—Tangerines almost makes it  credible given the warm portrayal of Ivo, whose Estonian family has left the war-torn region, but who himself continues to live on, for reasons never explained, in the battlefield. All he and his friend Margus want to do is to pick the tangerines and box them, in crates made by Ivo, hoping to get them to market before the war strikes their own small homes.

      Unfortunately, in the very first scene of the film, we realize that their efforts have come too late, when two Chechen mercenaries show up at Ivo’s door, demanding food. He feeds them good bread and cheese, and they leave him in peace, while warming him that not all the rebels will be so friendly. Yet hardly have they left his doorstep than their vehicle is attacked by Georgians. One of the Chechens is left dead, while it appears all of the Georgians have been killed.

      Ivo takes in the wounded Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze), and begins to bury the dead Georgians with Margus, only to discover that one of the Georgians is still living, although seriously hurt.
      Taking in the Georgian victim, Nika (Mikhail Meskhi) as well, the men call their local doctor who does his best for the badly wounded soldier.

       Made aware of an enemy in the same house, Ahmed insists he will kill Nika as soon as he   can again walk; but Ivo locks him away while nursing Nika to better health, demanding that they cannot kill one another within his house.

       At first the pair, quite obviously, are wary of one another, distrusting one another’s every move. But at dinners and suppers Ivo asks them personal questions which make it clear that both of the soldiers have similar reasons for being involved in a war in which they are not directly connected. Slowly, a kind of bond begins to grow between the two, particularly on account of the gentle kindness offered them by Ivo, despite their individual prejudices.

      Yet the war will not leave anyone alone. In one onslaught, Margus’ home and orchard is completely destroyed, and Ahmed offers him a large wad of money in payment for the bombing, which Margus refuses to accept.

     Soon after, Russians show up on Ivo’s doorstep. Knowing that he will be immediately killed if they discover he is hiding a Georgian within, he demands they both pretend they are Chechen. Amazingly, Ahmed goes along with it, claiming that Nika is also a mercenary, whose injuries have made it impossible for him to speak. Yet the Russians ultimately refuse to believe that Ahmed is Chechen, and intend to arrest him. Seeing Ahmed about to be taken off, Nika grabs his rifle and shoots at the Russians; but in the shoot-out Margus and Nika both are killed as well as the Russians.

     With Ahmed, Ivo buries them both next to his son, who was killed a few years earlier—perhaps a hint of why he has refused to leave the territory with other Estonians. He tells Ahmed that had he been the one to die, he would been buried next to his son. And Ahmed determines to leave the warzone, returning home to Checken, surely to face another war there two years later.

Los Angeles, May 26, 2017

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