The brisk narrative matters of Tangerines reside within the more expansive socio-historical events of the Georgian Civil War, though writer-director Zaza Urushadze keeps the film’s scope limited to a handful of men, each from differing sides of the border. Urushadze prefers the limited theatrics of a stage play, which the film effectively serves as, given the minimal range of formal techniques and the almost singular setting within and around the home of Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an Estonian man who’s remained in the war-torn region to harvest a crop of tangerines. Helping his efforts is Margus (Elmo Nüganen), a like-minded neighbor whose blunt adamancy that the bombings and shootings in nearby territories will soon be at their own doorsteps reveals Urushadze’s preference for painting dramatic stakes in broad strokes, with little interest given to lingering within spaces or troubling character intentions beyond their causal relations to one another.
Tangerines proves itself a film of rather base stakes, concerned with brotherhood during wartime after a shootout leaves two men alive. Ivo unflinchingly takes them in; one is Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary who’s adamant that he will kill the other, Niko (Misha Meskhi), a surviving Georgian. The setup allows each of these bedridden men to express their hatred for the unseen other, while Ivo serves as the pacifist go-between, eventually getting each of the men to agree that neither will seek violence against the other while under Ivo’s roof. Urushadze plays the majority of these proposed conflicts as exposition for each character’s eventual recognition that their pursuits of violence along national boundaries is but an arbitrary form of hatred which is founded in little more than a dogmatic adherence to militaristic procedure. Religion factors in too, as Ahmed assures Ivo that his vengeance is “a holy thing,” but Tangerines merely postures toward this suggestion, with glimpses of characters praying and contemplating their plights without further pursuits of each man’s core beliefs.
Nor does Urushadze care to dynamize the successively sentimental universalizing of the human condition with any more than a recurring, melancholic music piece or a banal, cut-and-paste interest in movement within the mise-en-scène. These stock choices are made all the more curious by a moment in which Ivo and Margus push a jeep from a cliff in order to disguise that a recent firefight took place. When the vehicle fails to explode, Margus remarks how, in the movies, cars always explode, leading Ivo to quip that “the cinema is one big cheat.” If taken as a directive from Urushadze that his film seeks to remain truthful or avoid deception, none of that jives with what’s on screen, since the relationships forged through isolation and hardship are proffered in order to cash them in for an unwitting climax in which the previously opposing soldiers recognize their constituent humanity amid the threats of Chechen outsiders.
Ivo’s home becomes a new locus for unity between the men, such that their eventual recognition that identity is more bound within character than nation allows them to band together in a climactic shootout, defending honor over creed. Opting for on-screen violence negates the film’s previous emphasis on therapeutic human relationships, especially since the violence comes via a deus-ex-machina group of trigger-happy soldiers. Even more egregious, Urushadze retreats into basic war-film clichés as one character is killed shortly after believing the enemy has been neutralized. For all of the potential, historically specific revelations regarding nation and religion, Tangerines elects to become bathetic hokum, which is concretized by the final sequence as a surviving character solemnly jams to a pop track while driving off into the Georgian countryside.