Following a crossfire between the Georgian and the Abkhazian/Chechen armies, a kindly old Estonian box-maker Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and his tangerine farmer friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen) rescue two wounded soldiers, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and Niko (Misha Meskhi) of opposite factions. Both, despite being in no position to fight, are practically baying for each others' blood upon finding that they are alive and under the same roof.
Ivo, however, makes them promise that there would be no killing in his house. Being the proud soldiers that they claim to be, and indebted to Ivo for saving their lives, they vow not to indulge in violence as long as they are under Ivo's care. Ahmed however, swears that he would kill Niko as soon as they are out on their own. As days pass by, and Ivo nurses the brave men back to life, an unusual bond develops between them, one that makes them look beyond territorial disputes and awaken to the humane aspect of being.
Much like the old protagonist in the film, filmmaker Urushadze advocates unity and non-violence, emphasizing upon the futility of war. However, (referring back to the scene mentioned above) while narrating a story such as this, that makes soft human beings out of stubborn, angry protectors of the land, somewhere deep within, he feels that such a scenario is too idealistic and he is probably cheating himself to even think of, or hope for such warmth in the face of cold hostility.
But it is quite a welcome scenario for the viewer anyway to witness friendship and kindness triumph over the brutality of war. Over time, despite a superficial will to kill, one can't help but notice the gradual decline of animosity between the soldiers. They deride each other, exchange empty words of attacking one another when seated across the same table, but refrain from making a move, even with an opportunity in hand, thereby abiding by Ivo's condition. The bitterness soon melts into smiles and short peals of laughter over sporadic jests. It goes to show that it has probably been a while for these soldiers since they had such moments of pleasantries in a relaxed atmosphere.
In the scenario presented, what ensues is completely believable. Urushadze mostly keeps it all composed, and with a simple story, delivers a very profound message. With the aid of some clever writing, Urushadze makes a powerful anti-war statement that is in fact, very obvious, yet one which most men fail to realize. It might seem like a message done to death, but the treatment and the method of delivery stands out in the case of "Tangerines".
Ultimately, what difference does all the killing make? Lives are lost in vain. Men fight for their land, but when they cease to exist, and the time comes to go beneath this very land, is it of any consequence what territory they are in? You might as well bury a Georgian with an Estonian or a Chechen in the end, like the old man Ivo says. How would it matter?
Urushadze shuns excess in favour of restrained minimalism and makes "Tangerines" an easy and effortless ride. A sublime theme music plays throughout the film, evocative of feelings of isolation and longing. These moods reflect Ivo's loneliness and sadness concerning the state of affairs in the countryside he has so come to love and hence continues to stay on, while his family members move to homeland Estonia as war commences. The cinematography captures the ethereal beauty of the country landscapes, contrasting the beauty of the land with the ugliness of the war that is being fought for it.
Moments of light humour are subtly infused, while keeping the seriousness of the subject intact and the overall fabric of his material from any harm of unevenness. Take for example, that excellent exchange that takes you by surprise just when you think things would turn sour. Margus storms out in a huff in protest when Ivo asks him to forget about his tangerines business, given the conditions of war. Ivo turns to Ahmed who's unaware of what happened and asks "Does he happen to be your relative, by any chance?", a visible question mark on Ahmed's face palpable. Little moments like these and more also establish the strength of Urushadze's actors. It is difficult to single out one, for all of the primary players make their presence felt with a conviction that is rare.
"Tangerines" is a work of elegance and pure excellence. One would have to struggle to find a fault with it and would certainly have to try very hard not to be moved by the extraordinary third act that restores one's faith in humanity. How great a place this world would be, if everyone recognized the human in them and let the sweetness trump the sourness, much like in a tangerine! "Don't give my men any money. Just give them a few boxes of tangerines", says a soldier who promises to send men to help Ivo. If only he realized the symbolic significance of his words that goes so much deeper; that it is kindness and compassion that should be chosen over material possession.