The rare ability to make intelligent, entertaining cinema from hot-button current issues is beautifully illustrated by “Lemon Tree,” a multifaceted drama straddling the Palestinian-Israeli chasm that’s marbled with irony, generosity, anger and pure crowd-pleasing optimism. As in his 2004 hit, “The Syrian Bride,” Israeli helmer Eran Riklis takes a story of border sensitivities but reduces its political components to a simple human level, topped by an outstanding, kudo-worthy perf from Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass. Bafflingly denied a competing slot in Berlin, pic should still bounce into warm upscale distribution, especially in Europe, with positive reviews.
Co-scripting again with Palestinian former journalist Suha Arraf, and working with the same French-German co-producing team, Riklis, whose populist touch stretches back to the 1992 hit “Cup Final,” has come up with another allegorical yarn that packs a much more direct political punch. Though pic plays directly to the pro-Palestinian international gallery, and at popular feeling in many quarters against Israel’s own version of the Berlin Wall, it’s actually an improvement on “Bride” in structure and content. Characters are better balanced and developed, and the script doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out in the cause of evenhandedness.
Setting is Zur HaSharon, on the Israel-West Bank border, where handsome 45-year-old widow Salma Zidane (Abbass), from a Palestinian village, has a lemon grove her father planted half a century ago. When smooth new Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (legit vet Doron Tavory) decides to build an upscale new house for him and his wife Mira (fellow legiter Rona Lipaz-Michael) — right up against the grove, on the Israeli side of the fence — Salma’s lemon trees are deemed a defense risk.
Before she realizes what’s up, Israeli security forces have erected a military watchtower and the lemon grove is locked up, prior to being chopped down, so terrorists can’t hide there. But Salma, who scrapes a living from her lemons, decides to challenge the military’s unilateral decision in the courts. “I’ve had my share of grief in life,” she says.
That’s the basic story, but the script soon fans out into a multicharacter piece for which the central plot — an obvious metaphor for Israel’s much more substantial defense wall — is only a trigger. Salma finds a Palestinian lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), who’s willing to take on her seemingly hopeless case, and the gradual love story that develops between the young divorced man and the lonely older widow provides a strong emotional underpinning.
Also caught up in the snowballing brouhaha, which eventually makes international headlines, is Mira. She’s stood loyally by her ambitious, philandering husband but slowly decides, like Salma, that enough is enough, sharing her frustration with a liberal journalist friend (Smadar Yaaron).
The slowly developing sense of emotional complicity between Mira and Salma — as they eye each other silently across the wire fence — adds an extra dimension. In a role that grows incrementally, Lipaz-Michael is very fine: Like Abbass, she always underplays a potentially cliched character.
Partly because the elliptical screenplay doesn’t waste time going into the legal minutiae of the case, all the thesps get screen time to shade their roles. Danny Leshman, as the watchtower guard, reduces the whole “security” madness to a deft character sketch, while Liron Baranes manages to give a human face to Secret Service goon Gilad. Palestinian vet Makram J. Khoury, the patriarch in “Bride,” contribs a strong cameo as a West Bank power broker.
Ultimately, however, it’s Abbass, the elder sister in “Bride,” who motors the movie in a glammed-down perf that’s among her finest work to date. Her brief but dignified courtroom speech near the end packs an emotional wallop.
Technical package is slick throughout, with standout, burned-by-the-sun work by ace German d.p. Rainer Klausmann (“Head-On,” “Downfall,” “The Edge of Heaven”) and a magical lensing moment between Salma and Ziad that’s pure cinema. As with “Bride,” pic’s title is in English, Arabic (“Shajarat limon”) and Hebrew (“Etz halimon”) on the print.