Taking the phrase "the personal is political" to heart, director Eran Riklis' quiet but pointed Lemon Tree gets caught in an unfortunate cinematic tug of war. On one side is a smart, bittersweet character drama; on the other, sledgehammer metaphors. Though the latter occasionally threaten to overwhelm the former, it's the human beings who ultimately win out, due in no small part to luminous Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass.
Salma (Abbass) is a fortysomething Palestinian widow who literally lives off the fruits of her land — a 50-year-old lemon grove that sits on the border between Israel and the West Bank. Unfortunately, politics come calling when Israel's new defense minister (Doron Tavory) moves in next door. His men view her grove as a potential security threat and want it removed. Salma enlists Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), a young Palestinian attorney, to defend her rights, pushing the case all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. Along the way she falls into an improbable romantic relationship with Ziad as the media catch hold of her story. Meanwhile, life on the other side of the fence also becomes rocky, as the minister's cloistered wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), has deep misgivings about who her husband is and the choices he makes.
Riklis tries to modify the formulaic view of villains, victims and heroes, but he can't quite deliver the ambiguity and complexity the drama needs. Though he's very good at illustrating social, political and class divisions — especially the way that both Israeli and Palestinian women struggle under patriarchal control — he presents the standoff in black-and-white terms. Salma is unflappably virtuous and courageous. The defense minister is a sly but boorish cad. With so many metaphorical allusions flying about — a soldier studies logic problems that trade in contradiction, the minister sends his caterers into the grove to steal lemons for his party — it's hard not to see the leads as stand-ins for political messaging. As a result, Lemon Tree becomes both an intentional and unintentional microcosm of the conflict.
Screenwriter Suha Arraf also gives short shrift to what could have been the most interesting subplot in the film: Mira's emerging sense of justice. Instead of using her character to illustrate a deeper truth about our mutual humanity, the defense minister's wife becomes a dramatic construct tasked with balancing Lemon Tree's parable. Did we really need the two-sides-of-the-same-prison imagery so heavily underlined?
What elevates Riklis' film are his restrained (if sometimes obvious) direction and the nuanced performances of his cast. While every character is well-drawn, it's Abbass' Salma that amazes. Salma is a model of stillness, grace and strength, drawing you into both her plight and awakening sexuality. It's the kind of precise and intuitive acting that gets past the hard outer surfaces of her stoic character and reveals the volcano beneath.
The sad reality of the Middle East is that the schism between Israelis and Palestinians is so deep and so profound it's almost impossible to envision it any other way. Riklis seems to acknowledge this with Lemon Tree's no-one-wins ending. But when the dreamers and artists (on both sides) can't help but tip their arguments to one side or the other, never fully accepting that guilt and responsibility is mutual, what does that say about our humanity and imagination? For those who truly pray for peace, maybe political exhaustion is the only thing left to hope for.
At the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].