Lemon Tree (Etz Limon) – Movie Review

A near perfect allegory of the deadlocked struggle for peace in the Middle East, this is rising star Hiam Abbass’ best performance to date

Emerging director Eran Riklis won the lottery when he signed up rising star Hiam Abbass for the lead in this great political drama.  Abbass, winner of the Israeli Film Academy Best Actress award for her work in this film, is coming off her smashing supporting role with Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” in 2008 (an Oscar nomination for him).  In that film she plays the mother of a Syrian national who is flying under the radar as an illegal alien in the USA.  In this film she plays Salma Zidane, the Palestinian owner of a lemon grove who is anything but low key.  Salma’s lemon grove becomes the no-man’s-land of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the symbol of the devastation of a war nobody can win.

Salma and her lemon grove find themselves on the edge of the most recent location of the “green line” separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank territory.  The lemon trees were in the middle of nowhere for years, but now they are within the “clear cut” area that runs along the soon-to-be-fenced Israeli border.  As if this were not bad enough, who but the Israeli Minister of Defense Navon (Doron Tavory) decides to build his dream house about 50 meters across the border from Salma.

This is the part of the plot that demands a little suspension of disbelief.  The security forces are brought into full action to hasten the hacking to earth of the beautiful stand of luscious trees as they are an obvious security risk to the minister.  In fact, no government official would locate himself and his beautiful wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) next to the frontier border and especially they would not locate next to an existing forest of lemon trees that would cover the approach of, say, a mortar attack.

But getting beyond that, the conflict between the survival of the lemon grove and the preservation of Israeli security makes for a great allegory of the on-going Middle East conflict.  Israel wants security and the Palestinians want to make a living and, well, survive.  Helping Salma survive is young lawyer Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman) who takes on her case for a small fee and eventually sees it through all the way to the supreme court in Israel. 

Other players include the hilarious Israeli army private “Quickie” (Danny Leshman) who’s on-line educational courses fill the air over the lemon orchard as Salma struggles to secretly water her trees.  The local Palestinian ruler advises Salma that her relationship with the young lawyer is unseemly and not in accordance with Islamic law, but he doesn’t provide any Islamic solution for her to save her trees.  Defense minister’s wife Mira eventually sides with Salma but she must choose between her husband and the lemon grove.  If she chooses to side with Salma she could lose her husband and the plush, stimulating life as the first lady of Israeli defense.

So the lemon grove is the symbol of peace, the dove that is slowly being strangled by the well meaning but thick-headed actions of security forces on one side of the fence and religious fanatics on the other.  In order to move forward all of the players must move far out of their comfort zones and learn a different way of life, as private Quickie is doing, listening to his on-line classes in his observation post above the lemon trees.  As his superior Commander Jacob (Amos Lavie) says, “I am not paid to think.”  Maybe we would all be better off if more persons in the region were paid to think.

If somebody doesn’t start thinking out the box soon the ponderous twenty foot high fence will drive a wedge between Israel and her neighbors that will never be crossed.  Communications will be lost forever until the fence is eventually brought down through violence.

This film is a well thought out and thorough examination of the role of human relations and human dignity in the Middle East and the importance of preserving respect and communications.  Sadly, the story does not bode well for the future of the region if simple human interaction has to constantly run through an obstacle course of fear and humiliation.  Hiam Abbass is also great.  See her in “The Visitor” and then enjoy her performance as she is given more screen time to develop her role.  We hope to see more of her in the future as well as director/writer Eran Riklis and co-writer Suha Arraf.

Directed by: Eran Riklis
Written by: Suha Arraf and Eran Riklis

Starring: Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman and Rona Lipaz-Michael

Release: April 17, 2009
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 106 minutes
Country: Israel/Germany/France
Language: Arabic/Hebrew/English with English subtitles
Color: Color