The selection of the Estonian film "Tangerines" as one of the five foreign language Oscar nominees for 2014 came as something of a surprise, but now that the movie is in theaters it's easy to see why the academy judges responded so strongly.
A somber parable about the destructive effects of war and what a shared humanity might be able to do to overcome them, "Tangerines" is an example of lean, unadorned old-school filmmaking where familiar style and technique combine to unexpectedly potent effect because of the great skill with which they've been employed.
Written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, "Tangerines" makes its timeless points by focusing on a particular European conflict, barely noticed in this country, that began in 1992.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazians who lived in the western part of Georgia declared their independence and a civil war began, with Russia siding with the Abkhazians and even encouraging mercenaries to fight against the Georgians.
Caught in the middle of this nightmare was a community of Estonians that had lived in this part of the world for more than 100 years. Once hostilities broke out, most Estonians felt they had no choice but to return to their country, but not everyone went.
"Tangerines" begins with one such reluctant Estonian, Ivo, introduced as he's carefully cutting pieces of wood to make crates. Effectively played by veteran Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak, Ivo is gray-bearded but resolute, a man of strong character who looks like a biblical patriarch and believes unequivocally in moral rules.
Ivo is making these crates for his neighbor and fellow Estonian Margus (Elmo Nüganen) and his thriving tangerine orchard. It's overloaded with fruit that should be picked as soon as possible, an activity the civil war is making problematic.
Soon, however, both men have problems more serious than the potential loss of a crop. First, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary fighting with the Abkhazians, rousts Ivo and demands food for himself and a friend. Though he calls him Grandpa, Ahmed seems to instinctively respect Ivo's character, telling him "it's a shame brave men like you get old."
When Ahmed leaves, Ivo expects never to see him again, but fate intervenes. A brief skirmish with a group loyal to Georgia leaves Ahmed's friend as well as most of the Georgians dead. Ahmed, however, survives, as does one of his opponents, a young Georgian named Niko (Mikhail Meskhi).
With Margus' help, Ivo puts each wounded man in a separate room in his house, the equivalent of placing boxers in opposing corners. He does what he can to see that both of them recover because of a bedrock belief in the sanctity of human life.
As they recover, however, Ahmed and Niko are each consumed with the desire to take the other's life. Animated by hostility, needling each other verbally because they lack the strength for more extreme action, they offer sad proof of the durability of ethnic animosities even among people who barely know each other.
Ivo, however, uncategorically refuses to let anyone be killed in his house. He insists on a truce within its walls, which both men respect because he saved their lives. Can the strength of his will, his "What is it with you guys, what gives you the right to kill?" attitude, begin to make a difference, and if so, for how long?
The actors who play Ahmed and Niko are convincing, but it is the work of Ulfsak, recently awarded the male performer of the century award in Estonia, who has the presence to make this enterprise convincing.
"Tangerines" is an intensely masculine story in which not so much as a single woman appears on-screen. Filmmaker Urushadze employs a deliberate pace and a melancholy tone to make his points and allow this convincing film to have its way with you.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Town Center in Encino; Playhouse 7 in Pasadena