Politics, ethnicity anchor 'Tree'
In the last few years the Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbass has become a cinematic force of nature - an Anna Magnani of the Middle East. US moviegoers know her as the mother in "The Visitor," but her best recent role was probably the bride's older sister in 2004's "The Syrian Bride," wearily coping with the ruinous surrealism of borders and national identity.
That film's writer-director, Eran Riklis, has put Abbass front and center in his latest film, "Lemon Tree," and while it's a lesser work than "Bride" - more obviously symbolic, overly forced in its plotting - the star rewards her director's trust with a performance that keeps shooting out unexpected tendrils of observation. She creates an emotional anchor for a movie that keeps lurching into the political.
But everything is political in Israel, according to Riklis and his co-writer Suha Arraf - even a lemon grove that has stood unbothered in the West Bank for half a century. A Palestinian widow named Salma Zidane (Abbass) has been eking a living selling lemonade since inheriting the grove from her father. As the film opens, the Israeli defense minister, bluntly named Israel Navon (Doron Tavory), moves into a mansion next door. His security chief (Linon Banares) looks at the trees and sees a terrorist in every one. Out goes the order: Down the lemon grove must come.
The widow decides to fight, hiring a young Euro-educated lawyer (Ali Suliman) to take the case all the way to Israel's Supreme Court. The story becomes a national lightning rod, then an international one. The irony is too delicious for the media to resist: It's a David and Goliath story, but the David is a Palestinian woman.
Based loosely on a true incident, "Lemon Tree" is essentially about gentrification and class differences, but because we're in Israel, it has to be about ethnicity and the endless shadow of history as well. Riklis consciously ignores religion but adds another strain - that of gender. The woman most sympathetic to Salma's plight is the defense minister's chic wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), a prisoner of her husband's ambitions and security apparatus. The film constantly underlines the similarities between the two women - both have grown children in America; both are kept in check by their respective cultures' macho - while despairing over their inability to connect.
It's an emotionally loaded story schematically told, with a visual emphasis on walls and fences - specifically, the towering West Bank wall cutting the area in two - that grows trite over the long haul. As the grove slowly withers, though, the main character starts to bloom, and Abbass illustrates Salma's growing assertiveness with subtle glances and regal bearing. The script forces an unlikely romance between the widow and her lawyer, but nothing that's said in "Lemon Tree" carries the power with which Salma dons her traditional head covering before going into court one last time.
Referencing the popular song, the movie's title reminds us that "the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat." That, in a rind, is Riklis's deeply frustrated view of his country's stalemate, but you can only take a metaphor so far before it falters in the face of endless geopolitical complexity. The movie's worth seeing for Abbass, though. Riklis keeps trying to turn Salma into Mother Palestine, but the star knows better. She just makes her real.