It’s a pity that Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree isn’t as arresting as it could be, since it manages to take an age-old conflict and freshly humanize it. That the movie is ultimately too restrained and too solemn is unfortunate, because it takes a lot of the air out of what could’ve been a touching little film.
The film follows Salma (Hiam Abbass, The Visitor), a Palestinian woman who lives alone. Salma’s son is in the U.S. washing dishes and her husband is deceased. Despite her lemon grove not being much of a moneymaker, her livelihood depends on it. Nonetheless, Salma is, surprisingly, not evidently disconcerted when her new neighbor, Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory), and the Israeli secret service decide that the grove must be chopped down for national security reasons (terrorists could gather intelligence or chuck grenades from the cover of the lemon trees).
Rejecting the Israeli government’s offers of compensation, Salma instead hires a local lawyer named Ziad (Ali Suliman, The Kingdom) who takes her case to the Supreme Court. What was for Salma a simple case of justice soon becomes a larger issue exemplifying the Israel/Palestine conflict. The way in which the characters react to one stressful situation involving something as innocuous as a lemon grove creates the film’s tension. While the grove is likely more trouble than it is worth, and in spite of Salma’s weariness (something typified in her burgeoning romance with Ziad that never quite blooms), the grove is her only tie to a past life with her husband, not to mention her individual sense of dignity.
Navon’s wife (Rona Lipaz-Michael) seems to be the only person on the Israeli side who sees the absurdity in it all and understands where Salma is coming from, even though the two women never actually speak to one another (at least on camera). By contrast, Riklis appears to be noting the decision-makers’ lack of feminine levelheadedness. But in the end, it’s the lack of understanding—or rather the inability to even try to understand—between Israel and Palestine that Riklis is bemoaning. This is shown through a fairly heavy-handed final scene, which juxtaposes Israel’s West Bank barrier, that nevertheless gets the filmmaker’s message across.
It’s an admirable undertaking. Still, Lemon Tree lacks a certain dramatic tension or an engaging element that would make it a truly excellent film. A lot of this boils down to the film’s overly sober tone. Sure, there are attempts at humor (the unflattering photo of Salma’s husband that pops up from time to time is a nice touch), but they’re too infrequent, leaving the bulk of the movie up to Abbass traipsing around looking grave and forlorn. Maybe Riklis is too aware of the importance of the topic. In the end, Lemon Tree is simply too cold to be as engaging as its potential would indicate.