Eugene Weekly : Movies : 7.2.09


The fate of a lemon grove in the Middle East
by Jason Blair

LEMON TREE: Directed by Eran Riklis. Written by Riklis and Suha Arraf. Cinematography, Rainer Klausmann. Music, Habib Shehadeh Hanna. Starring Hiam Abbass, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Ali Suliman and Doron Tavory. IFC Films, 2008. Unrated. 106 minutes.

Hiam Abbass in Lemon Tree

Although Lemon Tree is an Israeli film by a distinguished Israeli director (Eran Riklis, The Syrian Bride), Americans will recognize the central farce at work in Lemon Tree, in which lemons are declared a threat to national security. Not lemons disguised as grenades or lemon-flavored poison, mind you, but tree-hanging lemons, or rather a grove of them. In Lemon Tree, an old orchard comes under the scrutiny of the Israeli defense forces when the defense minister, played by Doron Tavory, moves across the street with his wife. The minister’s presence threatens the existence of the grove — to his handlers, who see danger in every cloud, the trees are a terrorist-filled thicket — but the minister’s wife has other ideas. Lemon Tree is many-sided thing, including an astute political drama, but the film ultimately is about two women, both strong and beautiful in middle age, forced by circumstance into a rivalry even as they’re trapped by their restrictive cultures.

The quiet, proud owner of the grove is Salma Zidane, a Palestinian played by the resplendent Hiam Abbass (The Visitor). The grove was her father’s, then her husband’s, then hers alone upon her husband’s death. Salma is a lonely woman who, at the outset of Lemon Tree, doesn’t realize her own strength. When the minister’s guards encircle her trees with a fence, effectively killing them off, she scales the fence to give the trees water. When she’s served notice of the grove’s removal, she takes the state of Israel to their Supreme Court. All the while, the minister’s wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), looks on, her sympathy deepening with each passing episode. Is her interest a reflection of her dissatisfaction with her married life, or is it something more fundamental? Like Salma, Mira is confined to her role as the dutiful minister’s wife, a position that limits what she can say and do. Both women are moral, circumspect and philosophical, putting them at odds with figures of authority. When one of them crosses the lemon divide, the scene underscores the courage they share as well as the futility of their situation.

Lemon Tree has the simplicity of a fable and the subtlety of a great short story. It is a quiet roar in the face of the fear-expanders who used 9/11 to advance their agendas, particularly in America and Israel, where state security was invoked to justify years of criminal activity. What the film lacks in drama it makes up for in spirit, particularly in the performances of Abbass and Lipaz-Michael, both actresses of international stature at the top of their game in Lemon Tree. You won’t be blown away by Lemon Tree. It’s not an essential film in terms of its music or photography, nor does it probe as deeply as it might have into the relationships comprising the film. As a stirring rebuke to paranoia, however, it’s worth a visit.

Lemon Tree opens Friday, July 3, at the Bijou.