What the NYT thinks about “Lemon Tree”
Thursday, January 24 at 7:00 pm will see the first New View Film of 2019. Lemon Tree is a sensitive, critically-acclaimed Israeli-produced exploration of relations between Palestinians and Israelis. Want to know what the New York Times thought about it? Read on.
“In a Grove, a War of Wills and Words”
Stephen Holden, New York Times, April 16, 2009
Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), the proud, handsome 45-year-old Palestinianwoman at the center of “Lemon Tree,” an allegory of Israeli-Palestinian strife, has the misfortune of living in the wrong place at the wrong time. Widowed for 10 years, with a son in the United States, Salma earns a meager living from a lemon grove on the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories of the West Bank. The grove has been in her family for 50 years.
Her solitary life suddenly turns upside down when the Israeli defense minister, Israel Navon (Doron Tavory), moves into a fancy new house that abuts the grove. Overnight a watchtower is constructed, and security guards and soldiers begin patrolling the property.
No sooner have Navon and his beautiful, cultured wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), moved into the new house than Salma receives an official letter informing her that the grove poses a security threat from terrorists hiding among the trees; as a military necessity they must be uprooted. The letter, which Salma has translated because she neither speaks nor writes Hebrew, loftily offers to compensate her for her loss while mentioning that because of recent legislation, there is no legal obligation to do so. She weeps at the news.
Thus begins an escalating war of words and of wills. After Salma argues her case before a military tribunal and is rebuffed, she takes her campaign to the Israeli Supreme Court. She also refuses to accept a decree that the grove is off limits and, at the risk of being shot, occasionally climbs the fence put up around it to water the trees and gather lemons. Some of the trees are already beginning to die. As word of her campaign to keep the grove spreads, her case becomes a news media cause célèbre that threatens to embarrass Navon.
“Lemon Tree,” directed by the Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis, whose 2004 movie, “The Syrian Bride,” explored Israeli-Arab border tensions, is also a wrenching, richly layered feminist allegory as well as a geopolitical one. As such, its details are not to be taken too literally. The screenplay by Mr. Riklis and Suha Arraf, the Palestinian-Israeli woman who wrote “The Syrian Bride” with Mr. Riklis, finds a deep commonality between Salma and Mira. Victimized by patriarchal attitudes toward war and sex, both begin to break the rules.
Mira, whose marriage to Navon has withered, strongly suspects that he is philandering and begins acting like a prisoner in her own home. Addressing the issue of the grove, Navon speaks the same evasive double talk that he does with Mira in discussing their marriage. When, out of frustration, she gives an interview expressing her sympathy with Salma, Navon is so infuriated that he pressures her to sign a paper taking back her words.
Salma is even more defiant. She develops an increasingly intense relationship with Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), the handsome, divorced 34-year-old Palestinian lawyer who pleads her cause. Their bond is public enough to incur the wrath of a boorish neighbor, Abu Camal (Makram J. Khoury), who sternly admonishes Salma for desecrating the memory and honor of her husband, whose portrait still hangs on the wall. Sexually the film is very circumspect.
As Mira and Salma study each other through the fence separating their properties, the film implies that the combined strength of two principled women is still no match for the powers that be. Ms. Abbass’s Salma is particularly impressive. With this movie and “The Visitor,” for which Richard Jenkins received an Oscar nomination, she has emerged as a formidable international presence with the magnetism of a Middle Eastern Lena Olin.
Although “Lemon Tree” doesn’t overtly take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it portrays the Israelis, who wield more military power, as abusive and arrogant in the way that any country with superior weapons and armies inevitably appears. The security guards on Navon’s property behave like strutting goons — only too eager to turn their guns on the first thing that moves — or clowns, like the watchtower guard nicknamed Quickie, who dozes off while on duty.
For as long as these war games go on, this movie suggests, the strife will continue.