Film Review: Lemon Tree

Superior drama about an endangered Palestinian-owned lemon grove at Israel&#8217;s West Bank border serves as a poignant microcosm of the ongoing strife between Palestinians and Jews in Israel. <i>The Syrian Bride</i>&#8217;s Eran Riklis again shows his g

Lemon Tree enters the U.S. marketplace bearing the fruit of numerous festival awards and Israeli Film Academy Award nominations, including a win for Hiam Abbass (The Visitor), who also starred in filmmaker Eran Riklis’ acclaimed The Syrian Bride, yet another border tale. This latest is a more assured work but shares with the earlier film a strong sense of story, empathy with problems all too human, and a reasoned approach to issues and emotions that feed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An honest and sensitive film, Lemon Tree should click with art-house fans who welcome an intelligent, entertaining look at an intractable real-world problem. Once again, Riklis focuses on the humanity of his characters, eschewing the violence and agit-prop that inform similar politically themed films.

The lemon grove of the title, in fact, is a peaceful place for Palestinian widow Salma (Abbass), who learned to cultivate it from her late father. But trouble comes when new Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) and wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) move nearby into a decidedly upscale house. Their security team believes that Salma’s mass of lemon trees will allow terrorists to hide, so the order comes to level the grove.

Soon a watchtower and sentry hover above both properties and the trees begin to come down. Salma watches painfully as her grove is fenced off and the work begins. Days later, seeing that the plants and their fruit are drying up for lack of water, she sneaks into the grove to irrigate them and embarks on subsequent missions until stopped. Watching the progress of this upheaval from her house, Mira betrays some misgivings.

For her part, Salma begins a formal protest by hiring Palestinian lawyer Ziad (Ali Suliman) to handle her case. As Ziad works with Salma to pursue a hearing in the Israeli Supreme Court, a chemistry grows between the two, even though the lawyer is a decade younger than his client.

Even the strict Palestinian elders in the community meddle, taking Salma to task for what may be more than a warm friendship. And as the lovely grove is being decimated, Mira tries to sway her husband toward saving it. But he sides with his security officers.

Soon the fight over the grove reaches court and captures the attention of journalists after Mira spills some beans to a reporter friend. She tells the woman about security’s raid on the grove in order to obtain lemons for her and her husband’s housewarming party. The story of the grove breaks big and Salma makes a passionate plea to the court.

As the fate of the grove plays out, so do various relationships. Salma and Mira, never really meeting, form an unspoken bond, perhaps meant as a silent, poignant cry for the warring sides to come together.

Abbass is terrific as Salma, as quietly determined as she is lonely, but handling her life and strife with immense dignity. Suliman, Lipaz-Michael and the others also deliver worthy performances. Bit players—a liberal journalist, Salma’s elderly handyman—add to the local color.

Riklis has fashioned a gem of a script with former Palestinian journalist Suha Arraf. And Rainer Klausmann’s super 16mm cinematography, perfectly suited to the warmth and modesty of the film, delicately captures all corners of the border setting. His camera also reveals the noisy, crowded Palestinian town of Ramallah and Israel’s ugly protective walls sealing off the Palestinian zones, both dusty, concrete counterpoints to the beautiful but embattled lemon grove.