Lemon Tree

A Drama

Written by Suha Araf and Eran Riklis

Directed by Eran Riklis

A lifetime of movie-going leads to expectations. We watch two people onscreen begin to fall in love despite society’s disapproval, and we expect triumph or tragedy. Decent people on opposites sides of a conflict will eventually meet and have a heart-to-heart talk. The protagonist has a son living in a far-away city, and the antagonist’s daughter just happens to live in the same city? Of course they’ll meet…if they’re not already lovers.

But filmmakers Eran Riklis and Suha Araf wisely avoid clichés in their Israel vs. Palestine drama. Indeed, if I were to tell you all of the clichés they avoid, I’d probably ruin the film for you.

The central character is Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), a Palestinian widow who’s spent her life tending the lemon grove she inherited from her father. Her grove borders the green line that separates the West Bank from Israel proper. When the new Defense Minister (Doron Tavory) moves in on the other side of the line, the secret service decide that the trees must be torn down. The case goes all the way to the supreme court.

But Lemon Tree is no courtroom drama. The filmmakers seem far more interested in people than legalities or politics. Salma has a parallel character on the other side: the Minister’s wife Mira, played by Rona Lipaz-Michael (a not-quite dead ringer for Catherine Keener). While Salma is locked out of her grove, Mira feels locked in her home by her bodyguards, her uneasy relationship with her husband (whose first name is the curiously symbolic Israel), and her guilt over what’s happening on the other side of the line she’s not allowed to cross.

Salma’s relationship with her young lawyer (Ali Suliman) provides an interesting subplot. Despite their different ages (she has children not much younger than him), they’re clearly attracted to each other. But acting on that attraction seems like a very bad idea in many ways.

Lemon Tree shows how the 40-year-old occupation effects and brutalizes people on both sides. But by sticking with characters who are just trying to lead normal lives, it wisely avoids polemics.