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Rona Lipaz-Michael as Mira (Photo: Eitan Riklis/IFC FIlms)

Directed by
Eran Riklis
Produced by
Bettina Brokemper, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Michael Eckelt & Riklis
Written by Suha Arraf & Riklis
Released by IFC Films
Arabic/Hebrew/English with English subtitles
Israel/Germany/France. 106 min. Not Rated
 Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Rona Lipaz-Michael & Doron Tavory

Israeli director Eran Riklis returns with the magnificent Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass and his creative team from The Syrian Bride, including Palestinian-Israeli co-writer Suha Arraf, to again look at how Israel’s hardening borders are not just lines on a map, but daily roadblocks to people-to-people communication.

The familiar title song is a reminder that lemons are pretty but impossible to eat, and provides the opening warning notes as the camera pans over a lush lemon grove. Hijab-wearing widow Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass) is busy cutting lemons in her West Bank kitchen for her specialty lemonade. A caravan of army trucks at the fence abutting her grove disturbs her peace, and on TV, Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) ups his blowhard profile by proclaiming his family’s move to the border, in the house right next to that fence. His pretty young wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), is apprehensive about their new home, but he insists she prepare a flashy housewarming party, with “authentic” Arab music and food, though it also has to be kosher to appease the Orthodox.

The minister’s security detail gets increasingly nervous as the widow next door continues to go about her daily pruning and harvesting chores, like the generations before her. However, she can no longer ignore their increasingly noisy intrusions when she receives an official letter condemning her property for the minister’s protection. This simple seeming update of David vs. Goliath starts to take on more complexity when she has to bring the document, written in Hebrew, to the head man at the local community center for translation and advice. Not only is he adamant that she should have no dealings with the Israelis, he is just as insistent that an unmarried woman shouldn’t own and tend land. The complexity of the characters and her circumstances deepens when she secures the assistance of an ambitious young lawyer (Ali Suliman, who has been a force in all of his roles since he came to international attention in Paradise Now).

Though Lemon Tree is not based on a specific real-life case, Riklis was inspired by the many instances of Palestinians trying to secure their land rights under Israeli law. As the widow’s grove becomes more a political football than a genuine security threat, and more a symbol than a viable agricultural enterprise, some of the comic relief crosses the line from satirical into silly—an ineffectual soldier in a turret studying loud, inane tapes for a promotion; an intrusive celebrity journalist like the late Oriana Fallaci; or the defense minister’s overly sexy secretary. Lipaz-Michael, in her film debut, is just sweet as the hesitant trophy wife who becomes inspired by the widow’s assertiveness, despite being separated by language, class, politics, fences, and guards. Yet even these secondary players are connected like dominoes falling to affect the outcome.

Abbass and her striking performance dominate the film. She has always projected dignity and humanity in supporting roles from Israel (Free Zone) to the U.S. (The Visitor and the upcoming Amreeka), but she gets the screen time here to effect even a more subtle transformation than her role in Raja Amari’s Satin Rouge, where she likewise broke taboos. Though her character becomes something of a Palestinian Erin Brockovich, her challenge to both societies has no Hollywood ending.

As pointed as the sometimes exaggerated situations are, the film shines in visual interactions that bypass the verbal miscommunications—the widow choosing to take off her hajib in front of her lawyer, and the politician’s wife increasingly curious observations of the lemon trees and their proprietress. (Cinematographer Rainer Klausmann was also responsible for Fatih Akins Head-On and The Edge of Heaven). Throughout, Riklis weaves in the sights and sounds of nature—rain, wind, howling wolves, and the sad changes in that beautiful little grove—to place tragic human foibles into the land’s long-term perspective. Nora Lee Mandel
April 17, 2009



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