Zaza Urushadze
Stars: Lembit Ulfsak, Giorgi Nakashidze
Rating: NR
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Cinema is one big cheat,” joke a character in “Tangerines” who has just helped push a jeep off a cliff (long story), only for it not to explode into a rip-roaring ball of fire upon collision. It’s a quip, but it’s supposed to also speak to this film’s credibility: that it’s not just a movie but rather a slice of real life that doesn’t water things down for easy consumption. But that’s a lie. “Tangerines,” for one thing, is a blunt antiwar film. Its setting is in fact an ongoing conflict: the one between Georgia and Abkhazia, a tussle that also affects Estonians who long ago moved to the region and now find themselves in the middle of a skirmish that can’t help but feel absurd, like any war. 

One of those Estonian transplants, salt-and-pepper-bearded Ivo (Lembit Ufsak), has tried to keep his head down, quietly tending to his (thankfully not symbolic) tangerine farm. Nevertheless, he’s forced, out of basic human decency, to get involved in some way when the fighting comes to his doorstep. A shootout leaves two wounded: Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary on the Abkhaz side who can’t wait to get his hands on the other guy, Nika (Mikhail Meskhi), a Georgian who can’t get too worked up, in part because his head is wrapped up in a massive bandage. Ivo, tending to both, orchestrates a cease-fire, during which he can teach them to be decent humans again, sometimes through forced cohabitation and record playing, sometimes through directly lecturing them, and us, about the stupidity of war.

“Tangerines,” which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, can be funnier than this description would suggest, though only kind of. At its best it doesn’t feel like a stuffy antiwar film at all but more like a hang-out movie that has to occasionally tend to its message. The warm lighting and cinematography is homey and welcoming, and it’s impossible for Ufsak — the best of the film’s band of fine actors — to make any of his pronouncements seem like mere tut-tutting. But every time the viewer feels OK to kick back they’re whacked them over the head by crude message-mongering or unsubtle ironies. Sometimes it interrupts the vibe with a suspense sequence, which are welcome; this isn’t just a peace drama but a stealth thriller, with Ivo occasionally having to hide his guests from passing by goons.

But there’s something else amiss. Technically “Tangerines” is a noble film with a noble message about the stupidity of fighting. But it also, like Ivo, isn’t interested in exploring the nuances of its token war. Both sides are bad and that’s it, and it never even entertains the possibility that one side, or even both, may technically have a point that needs working out, even if not by picking up arms. Instead it’s not interested in any specifics and, at its worst, just seems to be going through the motions.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge