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War films usually unfold on large canvasses. Directors like battlefields because they’re impressive and, well, kind of awe-inspiring. Tangerines, the war drama from Georgian filmmaker Zaza Urushadze, upends that trope. Instead of a battlefield, he focuses on a remote stretch of road, three modest houses, and an orchard. While his characters are at war, the film’s message is about compassion and the virtue of pacifism. The conclusions are blunt – critics of Tangerines say they are too facile – but they’re not maudlin thanks to understated, confident performances. While most films about war devolve into action clichés, this one ends with the weary wisdom of a fable.

It’s 1992, and there is civil war in Estonia’s mountains between Russia and Georgia. Most of the Estonians left the war zone, but the elderly Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) refuses to abandon his home. A carpenter who specializes in fruit crates, Ivo has a deal with Margus (Elmo Nüganen) who has a tangerine orchard. Their lives are simple and quiet, at least until there is a skirmish between Georgian soldiers and Chechen mercenaries. There are only two survivors – Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and Niko (Misha Meskhi) – and Ivo nurses both of them even though they are enemies. Ahmed and Niko are too weak to kill each other, so Ivo strikes a truce: Ahmed and Niko give their word they will not fight while they’re in Ivo’s house. With no alternative left, Ahmed and Niko start to talk, learning they have more in common than their honor.

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Urushadze has the patience to let his drama develop quietly. At first there is little dialogue, so Ivo’s deliberate movement is a form of character-building. The opening sequence is the key to the film’s tone: before his injury, Ahmed arrives in a jeep and asks Ivo for food. Ivo is taciturn and kind, at least until Ahmed’s friend makes a comment about Ivo’s granddaughter. Although though he’s unarmed, Ivo deadpans “Don’t dare” with smoldering anger, so the film then introduces a sense of respect that transcends the conflict. After the soldier apologizes, Urushadze has a neutral atmosphere so that every pro-war line sounds rude. Tangerines sometimes plays out like a family comedy, where Niko and Ahmed are spoiled children and Ivo is their tired father. But whenever other soldiers interrupt the tranquility of Ivo’s home, the film has the tension of the thriller (outsiders would kill Ivo for nursing the enemy). Urushadze’s episodic structure creates a comfortable rhythm, so that any outside force is genuinely shocking. The film’s cinematography adds to that comfort – the mountain scenery is so rich and green that you can almost smell it – although the warmth of Ivo’s home and the nearby orchid are ultimately a trick. Peace is an illusion in Tangerines, and the film’s sense of human nature only gets tougher from there.

It is inevitable that Ahmed and Niko come to see each other as people, not enemies, and Tangerines handles that transition with classic film-making that recalls Howard Hawks and John Huston. All the performances are natural and subdued, as if the actors do not want to betray the film’s message. By the time the climax arrives, these men surprise themselves with the choices they make. The ending may be simple, but it is inevitable, too, and the actors elevate the material by down-playing their emotion. I do not find it moving when an actor like Sean Penn wails through his misery. But when an actor plays a hardened man who can only express his sorrow with one ugly word, that depth of feeling moves me. The 1992 War in Abkhazia is a minor conflict, one that few Americans know or care about. Urushadze understands that, too, so the specificity of the conflict must lead to something more universal. It is easy, even fashionable, for cynics to question an anti-war message. Tangerines does not take the easy path, so when the credits roll, it earns that message.

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