Thursday, May 7, 2009
Lemon Tree (opening May 8 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Cinemas) is a drama based on the true story of a Palestinian widow who fought to keep her lemon grove after it's deemed a security hazard by her new neighbor, the Israeli Defense Minister. Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (who gained U.S. attention for her subtle work in The Visitor) plays Salma, the widow. Abbass had previously collaborated with Israeli director Eran Riklis on The Syrian Bride back in 2004. Both that film and now Lemon Tree deal sensitively and gracefully with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Riklis, as he did on The Syrian Bride, co-scripts with former Palestinian journalist Suha Arraf to create a film that takes a hot button political issue and spins an intelligent, elegant and very human-scaled drama and allegory. The story takes place on the Israel-West Bank border where fortysomething widow Salma Zidane (Abbass) maintains a lemon grove that her father planted a half a century ago in the Palestinian village. The grove is probably more work than it's worth but it is all she has and she ekes out a living from it. Then one day she gets a new neighbor who turns out to be the new Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory). He builds an upscale house for himself and his wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) that sits right next to the grove on the Israeli side of the fence. When his security team assesses the location they deem the grove a security risk because a terrorist could hide amongst the trees or sneak up undetected. So a watchtower goes up as well as a fence keeping Salma from her grove. So Salma decides to take her neighbor and essentially the Israeli government to court.
This small-scale border dispute reflects the larger one but it is only the starting point for this story. Salma finds a Palestinian lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman of Paradise Now and The Kingdom), who takes on the case but somewhat reluctantly. The two then form a romantic relationship that gives the film an added emotional depth. Also rounding out the film is Mira, the minister's wife, who has issues of her own with her husband and whose response to both their personal relationship and his public actions adds more layers to this story. In the end, the two women also develop an unexpected bond.
At the heart of the film is Abbass. Her carefully nuanced and always dignified performance gives the film a rock solid foundation. She proves herself an actress of great skill and understatement, and delivers a powerful performance. She also plays well off of Suliman as Salma's divorced and lonely lawyer.
Lemon Tree (in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles and unrated) recalls the Palestinian film Divine Intervention by Elia Suleiman. Both films look to relationships between neighbors as the very human scaled representation of the bigger border issues for Israel and Palestine. The suggestion being that if two people living next door to each other can't navigate a peaceful coexistence then how can we expect two countries to treat each other with respect, compassion and fairness. You have to start small first in order to make the bigger challenges more achievable.
Companion viewing: Divine Intervention, Waltz With Bashir, The Syrian Bride, The Band's Visit.