Tuesday 3 May 2011

Movie Review: Lemon Tree (2008)

A few lemon trees becoming a point of international debate between Israel and the Palestinians is an apt metaphor for the hyper-exaggerated importance of every little gesture and action in the intractable conflict. Lemon Tree is a thoughtful movie about the people living with the reality of the endless aggravation emanating from the ongoing crisis. 

Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass) is a middle-aged widow living in the West Bank, exactly at the border with Israel. Her grove of lemon trees is all that she has left in the world. The new Israeli Defence Minister, Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) and his wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) move into the house across the border fence from Salma's grove. Navon's security detail order the eradication of Salma's lemon trees to reduce the threat of terrorist infiltration through the grove.

Salma teams up with lawyer Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman) to fight the case through the Israeli court system. Ziad has a wife and child leftover from his student days in Russia, but he and Salma nevertheless develop a mutual attraction that sets tongues wagging in the conservative West Bank society. The widow and the lawyer steer their unlikely case to save the grove all the way to the supreme court as the lemon trees become an international cause celebre.

Director Eran Riklis captures the assymetrical essence of the ongoing Israeli - Palestinian conflict through the story of the lemon trees, with the underlying theme of humanity being sacrificed at the altar of fear. Lemon Tree's strongest moments involve the relationship between Mira and Salma, two women on either side of the same fence but unable to establish even the most basic communication. Riklis is able to speak volumes by muting the conversation between the two women, who are in each other's face but in utterly different worlds.

The emerging attraction between Salma and Ziad is handled with refreshing sensitivity, and although there is a greater message of love and dignity emerging together, the relationship remains primarily a simple story of two lonely souls finding solace in a common cause.

But the script by Riklis and Suha Arraf is also a bit sloppy, and leaves a few threads unattended. A young Israeli soldier assigned to an observation post on Navon's property is given humorous prominence but suddenly drops out of the plot. A journalist who publicizes Salma's plight is equally abandoned by the script. And an attempt at a sub-plot involving Navon potentially having an affair with an attractive staffer is never brought out of the shadows.

But despite the loose ends, Lemon Tree is a masterpiece of simple and controlled storytelling, successfully conveying a much greater drama without descending into melodramatics.

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