Directed by Eran Riklis. Starring Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Doron Tavory, Tarik Copty, Amos Lavie. (2008, NR, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 5, 2009
Set in Zur HaSharon on the border between Israel and the West Bank, Lemon Tree offers a tart but never completely bitter metaphor for the entire Palestinian situation as experienced by a single resourceful and sympathetic character. Based on actual court cases (the film was co-scripted, with director Riklis, by Palestinian journalist Suha Arraf), Lemon Tree tells the simple, elegant, frustrating story of Salma Zidane (Abbass), a 45-year-old Palestinian widow whose only joy in life is tending to the bountiful lemon grove her father planted 50 years ago. It's a hardscrabble existence for this proud, grieving woman – her husband, seeking work outside of the country, died of a "weak heart" years before – and it all begins to fall apart when new neighbors move in next door. Those would be Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Tavory), his wife Mira (Lipaz-Michael), and their black-clad security team, who immediately target Salma's grove (which backs right up to Navon's villa) as a "real and imminent threat" to the Navons’ security. Their solution? Raze the grove. Quietly (and rightly) incensed, Salma hires a young lawyer, Ziad Daud (Suliman), and sues her neighbors. The defense minister, all televised bluster, reacts with jokey dismissals, but his wife is abashed: She watches Salma work the grove – bending, picking, piling up lemons in her sack – and she sympathizes but says nothing, torn between her responsibility to her husband's political position and her own shame at being, quite literally, a truly awful neighbor. As the lawsuit grinds through the Israeli legal system – eventually going all the way to the Supreme Court – Salma and Minister Navon become a metaphor for the intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Mira caught somewhere in the middle. Riklis, who helmed 2004's equally fine The Syrian Bride, has rendered in microcosm the entire history of the Middle East: land grabs and lemons, sorrow and citrus. (In a lighter, but equally wonderful touch, there are even some bittersweet running gags, among them an impossibly dour photograph of Salma's late husband, which passes silent, stern judgment over all who enter his former home, and the fact that everyone who imbibes Salma's homegrown lemonade proclaims it to be … "tasty!") The most remarkable aspect of Lemon Tree, however, and the one that's most likely to land this film on many year-end Best Foreign Film lists, is Abbass' devastating and marvelously restrained performance. Her Salma is a silent lioness (mirroring, in some respects, her neighbor Mira) who has had, as she puts it to her lawyer, "enough grief for one life." Backed into a literal and metaphorical corner, she lashes out not with violence (as the Israelis who imagine her beloved lemon grove crawling with nonexistent enemies anticipate) but via rule of law and sheer, gritty perseverance. Her face a stony mask of determination behind which lies a woman of both great passion and great beauty, Salma fights back – something no one, Israeli or Palestinian, expects. She's fierce in her own quiet, tenacious fashion, a female David to the Israeli Defense Ministry's Goliath, and while she may or may not triumph over this particular giant, her battle is no less memorable for its unknowable outcome.