'Lemon Tree': Bitter And Sweet On Israel's Border

W Hiam Abbass i

When Life Takes Your Lemons: Hiam Abbass plays Salma Zidane, a Palestinian widow whose lemon grove faces destruction for the sake of an Israeli minister's security. Eitan Riklis/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Eitan Riklis/IFC Films
W Hiam Abbass

When Life Takes Your Lemons: Hiam Abbass plays Salma Zidane, a Palestinian widow whose lemon grove faces destruction for the sake of an Israeli minister's security.

Eitan Riklis/IFC Films

Lemon Tree

  • Director: Eran Riklis
  • Genre: Foreign
  • Running Time: 106 minutes

Not Yet Rated

Two women bond without ever quite meeting in the poignant Lemon Tree, the latest border parable from Israel's Eran Riklis, director of The Syrian Bride. If the story's resolution feels less than triumphant, that reflects not only the plight of its Palestinians, but also the status of its women.

The movie begins by crosscutting between old and new: Middle-aged widow Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass) preserves lemons from her grove, as she always has, as her ancestors doubtless did before her. Meanwhile, a moving van arrives at a brand-new house, to be inhabited by Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory).

The house sits close to the border between Israeli and Palestinian territory, and next to Salma's lemon trees. Soon, a guard post has been erected, followed by a barbed-wire fence around the grove. The trees are a security risk, Salma is informed, and the plan is to cut them down.

With her daughters married and her son working in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, Salma finds herself isolated. But that hasn't sapped her spirit, so she challenges the Israeli military edict.

After village elder Abu Kamal (Makram Khoury) advises her to fold, Salma finds a young lawyer who will take the case all the way to Israel's Supreme Court.

On the other side of the fence, meanwhile, the defense minister's wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), sympathizes with Salma and gently resists the security apparatus. Exasperated by her own loneliness and by the military's overreaction to the grove, Mira gives a newspaper interview that complicates her husband's life.

He's forced to respond, of course — and it doesn't exactly comfort Mira that the person assigned to get her to sign a retraction is the defense minister's imperious young aide, who seems also to be his mistress.

Rona Lipaz-Michael i

Rona Lipaz-Michael plays the minister's wife, who sympathizes with her embattled neighbor. Eitan Riklis/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Eitan Riklis/IFC Films
Rona Lipaz-Michael

Rona Lipaz-Michael plays the minister's wife, who sympathizes with her embattled neighbor.

Eitan Riklis/IFC Films

Salma's campaign is complicated by the mutual attraction that's growing between her and her lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman). After he spends the night — innocently — under Salma's roof, gossip takes root. Abu Kamal drops by to warn her, revealing a sour irony: He's more concerned about damage to her late husband's reputation than about the possible destruction of the grove from which Salma makes her modest income.

Punctuated by tracking shots of the "separation wall" that's being erected around the territory claimed by Israel, Lemon Tree quietly but chillingly illustrates the balance of power.

Yet Riklis also includes ironic moments — in one of them, Arabic music plays at the Navons' housewarming party — and suggests that Palestinian resistance is more concerned with preserving machismo than with producing results.

The movie benefits from subtle performances by its striking stars, Lipaz-Michael (an Israeli stage veteran) and Abbass (also seen in The Syrian Bride and Steven Spielberg's Munich). The rest of the cast is equally deft, with even the least sympathetic roles avoiding caricature.

Dramatically, Lemon Tree's impact is lessened by the lack of a climactic encounter between Salma and Mira, who are separated by language as well as by the fence.

Symbolically, however, the gap between the characters is essential: What prevails here is not the rapport of these two women, but the forces that implacably divide them.

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