Film Review: Lemmon Tree. Rating B+.
This is a drama filmed from mostly the Palestinian point of view but counter pointed with the official and unofficial Israeli view. Directed by Eran Riklis, an Israeli filmmaker, the film examines the consequences of Israeli governmental actions on both Arabs and Israelis much like Waltz with Bashir, reviewed below on January 11, 2009 .
The story centers around a Palestinian widow, Salma ( Arab-Israeli actress, Hiam Abbass) living alone, on a lemon grove inherited from her deceased father. Her husband is prematurely dead and her children live elsewhere leaving her to survive on the income from her lemon grove which she tends with the assistance of an aged family retainer.
Her life radically changes when a new Israeli Defense Minister, Israel Navon, (Doron Tavory) moves into a house bordering her land with his wife Mira (Rona Lipaz Michael).
Navron’s security people advise him to have the grove cut down as it offers cover for terrorists attempting to attack his home. Both Navron and his wife are conflicted by this advice but he reluctantly agrees and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) proceeds with the legalities of taking the land and removing the trees for security reasons.
Salma makes inquiries as to her options with the local Arab leaders and is advised that it is a lost cause to oppose the IDF on a security issue. Consulting Arab lawyer, Ziad Daud, (Ali Suliman) she again learns that her case involving a land taking for security reasons has little chance and that she is lucky she has been offered compensation. Despite these dire predictions she is compelled to fight, because of father’s legacy, the military order in Israeli courts.
In the meantime the grove is fenced off from her house and Salma is not permitted to water or tend her trees. Mira whose children are away at school is left in her house much of the time while her husband is away on defense business.
Mira, who is estranged from her husband and in this respect also alone, is aware of the calamitous result of the taking to the widow whose house she can see from her window. She sees the soldiers preventing Salma from tending her trees which are now dying. She questions the need for the decision and it is a source of conflict between her self and her husband. This is compounded by the suggestion that he is having an affair with a young female attaché on his staff.
Mira tries to visit Salma and nearly makes it but security agents stop her at Salma’s door and she returns to her house overlooking the lemon grove and Salma’s modest home.
The lemon grove is based on true events and is an allegory for the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. What ever rapprochement between Arab and Israeli on the personal level and on the official level might be possible is either made impossible or severely curtailed by the militants on both sides.
Although Mira would like to reach out to Salma she cannot for security reasons although Salma, herself, is non threatening. However as the Israeli’s well know , appearances can be deceiving.
Her husband is Defense Minister and a separatist politician, who could override his security advisors decision, he chooses not to because he realizes that the lemon grove is a metaphor for events happening all over Israel and he will be seen as soft on defense if he acquiesces to his wife’s wishes that Salma’s grove be left intact.
There many secondary themes in this picture. One is that the Arab friends of her late husband are upset she is seen as being too close to lawyer Zaid. This is a meretricious relationship in their eyes as the lawyer is half her age and is also engaged to a prominent Arab politician’s daughter. However they are unconcerned with her struggle to keep her lemon grove and offer neither financial nor moral support. So the film is a comment as well concerning the status of Arab women in Arabic society
A perceptive woman journalist recognizes the emotional aspect of this story, a poor widow fighting the government to preserve her lemon grove and the matter becomes front page news. However the defense minister defends his actions by saying that his hands are tied by the military, the ongoing assaults by Hezbollah rockets in the north and by terrorist acts throughout
Salma achieves a pyrrhic victory when she wins the right to keep half her lemon grove. At the end the defense minister is in his fortress like house with his view of a once pastoral country side including the lemon grove blocked by the separating wall.
Salma is seen walking her land with half her lemon trees cut back to just above the roots but not completely destroyed so they will grow again with care, symbolic perhaps of the Arab-Israeli condition. The lawyer who made advances towards her is gone, married to the politician’s daughter and the Defense minister is alone in his walled off secure house. Mira is also gone.
The lynchpin of this film is Hiam Abbass whose soulful face reveals the pain of her life and condition. This is mirrored in Mira’s intense feeling that she would like to reach across the divide that separates them and at least communicate as women facing similar problems. In the end everybody loses something and what is gained, Navron’s security or half Salma’s grove, is a bitter bargain for what was lost. The film is well written and directed. The cinematographer was Ranier Klausmann