In a small estate on the West Bank border between Israeli and Palestinian territories, widow Hiam Abbass enjoys a modest, self-sufficient life tending a lemon grove. Then the new Israeli defense minister moves into a house abutting the grove, and his security officers worry about the possibility of snipers and bombers hiding in the trees. The government orders the grove cut down, and offers Abbass compensation. But it isn’t a livelihood she means to preserve; it’s a way of living.
Israeli cinema is—understandably—replete with films that break down the enormity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into small human stories. Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree is one of the more artful examples of the form; it’s beautifully shot, crisply paced, and subtly performed by a cast of veteran actors. Abbass—a familiar face from the likes of The Visitor, Munich, and Riklis’ The Syrian Bride—imbues the role of a silently suffering middle-aged woman with real nuance, showing her irritation, fear, obstinacy, and desire. When Abbass engages an activist attorney (played by Ali Suliman, of The Kingdom, Body Of Lies, and Paradise Now), his passion for justice spills over into romantic passion, which puts Abbass at risk of being shunned by her own puritanical community. Riklis carefully endeavors to keep Lemon Tree from becoming a polemic, by showing how politics and tradition on both sides get in the way of a matter that should be more easily resolved.
But while Lemon Tree’s particulars are thoughtfully sketched, the story’s broad outline is still, well, broad. Riklis can’t resist scenes where Suliman’s fellow attorneys get in his face and grunt, “Do you really think you can fight this country?” or scenes where the defense minister’s frustrated wife (Rona Lipaz-Michael) tells the press, “I wish I could be a normal neighbor.” There’s very little surprise in a story about well-meaning people caught up in the inevitable conflict of two societies geared toward mutual mistrust. This story—or stories like it—has been told and re-told too often. Lemon Tree works best when Riklis cuts out the predictable melodrama and trusts the fertility of his central metaphor. While the courts deliberate over whether to uproot, preserve, or prune Abbass’ grove, the trees begin to wither from neglect. That detail alone says all that Riklis means to say.