Lemon Tree: Israeli Eran Riklis’ Tale of Proud Palestinian Woman, Well Played by Hiam Abbass

“Lemon Tree,” the new Israeli-Palestinian drama, is well-acted, but overall it represents a step down for the gifted Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis after his terrific movie, “The Syrian Bride.” 


In an effort to distil the enormous complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a more humanistic and intimate story, about a proud Palestinian woman’s fight to keep her family’s beloved lemon grove, Riklis has made a rather simple film whose narrative and characterization leave much to be desired.


“Lemon Tree” world-premiered at the 2008 Berlin Film Fest (in the Panorama section), where it won the coveted audience award, and then played at San Sebastian and others fests, before scoring seven Israeli Oscar Award nominations, winning best actress for Hiam Abbass (who also starred in “Syrian Bride” and most recently was seen in the critically acclaimed indie, “The Visitor,” for which Richard Jenkins won an Oscar nod).


“Lemon Tree” opens Friday, May 1 in NY and LA before a national release in other markets, and it will also be available on IFC Films’ Video on Demand Platform.


An actress with a great photogenic face and expressive voice, Abbass plays Salma, a middle-aged Palestinian widow living on the edge of the West Bank, eking out a living from a small lemon grove on her property, whose fence marks the Israeli border. When Israel’s defense minister moves into the house across the fence, the secret service claims that the lemon grove might be a threat to the minister’s safety and orders Salma to cut it down.  Salma, whose son is in America and whose daughters live far away from her, decides to fight for her trees–and dignity.


Under the silent, sympathetic eye of the minister’s wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), Salma defies the authorities, sneaking into the shuttered grove to water and care for the trees, while mounting a legal challenge with the help of attorney Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman of the Oscar-winning “Paradise Now” fame), who is attracted to Salma’s quiet strength and inner resolve.


Embarking on a legal journey, which takes her all the way up to the Israeli Supreme Court, Salma is joined by the Palestinian lawyer Ziad, fighting against military lawyers that are strongly backed by the government.  For his part, divorced from a Russian woman he met while attending law school in Moscow, Ziad, who’s 34, falls head over hills for Salma. Gradually, their affair becomes more complicated and even dangerous as Palestinian widows are not exactly free to engage in love, certainly not with younger men.


As Mira’s marriage falls apart and Salma struggles to maintain control of both her land and her conflicted feelings for the young lawyer, the two women form an unspoken bond from across opposite sides of the fence, a bond that may or may not lead to a solution.


Co-scripted by director Riklis and Palestinian journalist Suha Arraf, the movie suffers from simplistic characterization and contrived dramatic situations, but it benefits immensely from the soulful performance of Hiam Abbass, who was deservedly praised in various festivals.


Riklis uses the border dispute to reflect upon (and criticize) the Israeli government’s divisive policies of containment in the West Bank.  While expressing rage, he refuses to take sides, trying to show compassionate understanding for both sides of the difficult, never ending conflict.

Alongside schematic characterization, there also is the problem of tone of what ultimately feels like agenda picture.  On the one hand, the female-driven tale, centering on two strong-willed femmes, is not political enough.  It’s not clear whether he means it to be as parable, an allegory like “The Cherry Orchard,” in which the uprooting of a tree is a symbol for a long gone tradition, national, pride and way of life.  On the other, “Lemon Tree” is not juicy enough to qualify as an entertaining melodrama, and so the film falls in between the cracks.  A light feminist streak runs through the text, but the camaraderie between the two women, which evolves out of their dissatisfaction with their respective positions, is not entirely convincing or compelling.


Running Time:  106 minutes

Rating: Unrated

Language: Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles