Movie Review by Willard Manus
LEMON TREE, Eran Riklis' followup feature to his 2004 prize-winning The Syrian Bride, is a touching portrait of people caught in the jaws of contemporary history. Born in Jerusalem, raised in the USA, Canada and Brazil, Riklis graduated from The National Film School, Beaconsfield, England in 1982, and began making Israeli films in 1984. His latest is set on the border between Israel and Palestine and deals, in an intimate and poignant way, with the explosive situation there, the price those living in a war zone must pay in order to survive.
Hiam Abbas (the star of The Syrian Bride) plays Salma, a handsome widow from the small Palestinian village of Nablus, where her family has owned a lemon grove for centuries. The grove provides a subsistence living for Salma and her aged gardener, Tarik (Abu Hussam, star of another successful Israeli film, The Band's Visit). Love of land is really what makes Salma and Tarik keep the grove going. The citrus trees are like their flesh and blood, living creatures to be treated with respect and love.
The film's conflict is triggered when a newly-elected Israel Defense Minister, Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) and his wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), move into a new house bordering on the grove. Despite the fact that the grove has never been anything but peaceful, the Israeli secret service decides that fences and guard towers must be erected here to protect the minister. Being penned in raises Salma's ire, but things grow even worse when the Israelis, spurred on by the terrorist threat from the ongoing Intifada, later decide that the grove must be razed.
Compensation for her loss is offered by the Israelis. Salma's son, working as a chef in the USA, urges her to take the money and buy a flat in Nablus. She gets the same advice from an official at the Palestinian Authority (an Arrafat loyalist), who tells her that, in effect, you can't fight city hall.
Salma is not only a stubborn but courageous woman, one who is gutsy enough to take on the entire Israeli justice system in a desperate attempt to save her beloved trees. She is aided in this David vs. Goliath battle by a young Arab-Israeli lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman, another alumni of The Syrian Bride). Their relationship slowly evolves over the months that follow, during which time they first try their case in a military court, then before the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. The attorney/client link deepens into something more personal, something resembling love.
LEMON TREE shows just how complex and tricky affairs of the heart are in that part of the world. In another visit from the Palestinian Authority, Salma is lectured about the impropriety of a widow falling for a younger man. The Arab moral code forbids such things.
The Navons, meanwhile, are going through their own personal crisis. Mira, left to her own devices while her husband is continually away on government business, begins to feel isolated and neglected. A smart, sophisticated woman whose career has been put on hold because of her husband's political ambitions, she begins to realize the absurdity of the case against Salma--"all this unbelievable fuss over a bunch of lemons."
She also begins to feel affection and empathy for the embattled Salma. A bond grows between the two women, even as Salma's story is taken up by the media and becomes a national cause celebre.
LEMON TREE doesn't tell a black and white story. Bad things happen on both the Arab and Israeli sides, but Riklis doesn't try to hide or judge them. Neither does he offer easy, upbeat solutions to the problems addressed in the film. LEMON TREE unspools in a quiet, understated way, at all times emphasizing the human over the political.