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Estonia's Oscar Nominee, 'Tangerines,' Is The Anti-'American Sniper'


Early in Tangerines, Estonia's Oscar nominee, an old carpenter named Ivo finds an injured soldier near his home, a fresh wound on his chest. "You shouldn't yell," the old man tells the soldier. "Otherwise, you might die." 

This is how a quiet war film asks you to hush and to listen. It's a theme of Tangerines (Mandariinid), in fact, to subvert the thrum and blast of what war movies have trained us to expect. Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and his neighbor, a tangerine farmer named Margus (Elmo Nüganen), are some of the last holdouts in Abkhazia, Georgia during a war between Georgian forces and Abkhazian separatists in the aftermath of the USSR's breakup. Their friends and family, ethnic Estonians, have fled to Estonia (not particularly handy, geographically). Aside from the ominous echo of faraway gunfire, and brief encounters with passing soldiers, all is sleepy-still.

Then, a jeep with Caucasian soldiers intersects with a van of Georgian soldiers. They blow each other up in the neighborhood, and the local men need to hustle to get the incriminating vehicles off the road. They enlist a friend to help tow the van to a ravine. When they dump it, the van rolls down the embankment and settles at the bottom, inert.

"I thought it's going to explode," the friend says, in the sketchy translation on the version I watched. "It explodes in the cinema." 

Ivo replies: "The cinema is one big cheating."

Watching this movie in early 2015 in the United States of American Sniper, you'll feel it has more to say about war and religion than Clint Eastwood's mash note to mass murder. The cinema, so infatuated with loud bangs and flowering orange blasts, does, as Ivo says, cheat us. Director/writer Zaza Urushadze instead gives us a clever, claustrophobic plot befitting a three-act play. As Ivo brings the surviving Caucasian mercenary, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), home to mend, he also discovers that one of the Georgian soldiers, Niko (Misha Meskhi) has survived, if only barely. Ivo pulls Niko from an open grave and takes him home. The enemies, now living by the grace of a kind but war-weary old man, promise not to kill one another while under his roof.

Heroism in this context is determined by how few people die, not how many. At the beginning of their convalescence, the Muslim Caucasian sits a kitchen table away from the Christian Georgian and tells him not to stick his head out of the window, lest it get chopped off. Yet events conspire to push them closer together as the days wear on; both have to dummy up when soldiers come through, knowing Ivo could be killed for nursing an enemy. Mostly it is Ivo's kindness, and his fatigue with the killing, that moves them. When the Caucasian tells the old man that he must take revenge on the Georgian for the death of his comrade, Ahmed explains: "It is a holy thing for us. You will never understand." Ivo replies calmly, almost inquisivitely: "To kill a person who is sleeping, even if he is unconscious? This is holy for you as well? I didn't know." 

This casual disarming of the premises of religiously fueled fighting arrives as a salve in the wake of American Sniper, which  has minted more than a third of a billion dollars worldwide. Plenty of movies so clunky, uneven, and hyperbolic have made that kind of bank, though they're usually not decorated with six Academy Award nominations—a preposterous total for a movie that detonates over and over without ever imparting much sensation or new thought. The central character of Eastwood’s blockbuster, Chris Kyle, so revels in the bloodbath of wartime Iraq that he exudes a cold bleakness. But having volunteered for war and fought so prolifically, he fits a certain conventional definition of heroism. To point out the movie's flaws becomes a blasphemy against country and service.

Thoughtful, self-reflective warriors have been a lynchpin of literature from Achilles through Yossarian. Kyle's trademark, instead, was a rote lack of hesitation on the trigger. Pressed in the film to reckon with the slaughter he wrought (killing perhaps 200 people; he may as well have shot down a Boeing 707) his response was that he wishes he could have done more to save his friends. More, in this case, would be to kill more of his enemies until they, all dead, never killed anyone again. Given that the story arc includes his ongoing showdown with an enemy sniper (at least as skilled a marksman as Kyle) we wonder whether Kyle's counterpart had the same thoughts. No regrets for anyone, other than that the killing progressed too slowly to save lives.

The logical endpoint to this thinking is an omnibus of corpses, all having killed one another so that no one would kill anyone else. If America suffers from a strain of nihilism, it lives in such rationale: belief in the right (God-given, of course) to take actions reserved only for Americans. Tangerines, however, works backward to dismantle that attitude stone-by-stone. What is the difference, after all, between a Georgian and a Caucasian? Characters in the movie don't even know themselves. So why, exactly, should they die? 

Margus, the tangerine farmer, jokes grimly that the conflict there is the War of Citrus. "It's a war over my tangerines," he says, without laughing. He fears his fruit is doomed to die on his trees. To him, the casualty is not the money he will lose, which is substantial, but the shame of it all, in squandering a simple, living blessing. All war is personal in this way, a collection of related tragedies suffered alone together. For some, the tragedy will be rotten food. For others, it will be the hundreds unkilled who should've died. To others yet, it will be the need to take even a single life. One can imagine, though, through a quiet Estonian anti-war movie, what it would mean to survive a war in which you and your enemies mutually prefer not to rack up even a single kill. Why, that would hardly look like a proper war at all.

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