May 21, 2009

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Lemon Tree (PG)
A Palestinian woman stands to lose her lemon trees when the Israeli defense minister moves into the house behind her grove in Lemon Tree, a quiet, touching film.

Salma (Hiam Abbas), a widow, lives off the sale of the lemons from the trees in her grove. She watches warily as Israel Navon (Doron Tavory), who is the Israeli defense minister, and his wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) move in behind her, bringing with them an intimidating security detail.

Israel doesn’t blink at the guard tower set up in the backyard or the men that follow his every movements, but Mira has the look of someone watching as a cage is built around her. The security guards don’t like the X factor that is Salma’s lemon grove so close to their minister’s house. Terrorists could come out of the grove and throw bombs or shoot at the Navons, they say, and so a letter is sent to Salma that, by order of the Israeli government, her grove will be cut down.

The dividing line between the Navons’ house and Salma’s is the division of two worlds — Israeli and Palestinian. On the Navons’ side is a prosperous (if well-fortified) suburb; on Salma’s side is a farm surrounded by dusty land. The lemon trees are an annoyance to the Navons’ side; they are everything to Salma’s side.

She decides to fight the order and brings in a young lawyer, Ziad (Ali Suliman). The case eventually garners international attention as it serves as a picture-perfect metaphor for the conflict as a whole.

There is, of course, more to the situation than a line, some lemon trees and the power of a government. Mira and Salma, though separated by a border of sorts and by class and culture, have a lot in common. Both have children in the U.S. (both, actually, in Washington D.C. — Mira’s daughter is at Georgetown, Salma’s son works at a restaurant). Both seem lonely — we see Mira suspiciously eyeing the blonde woman who is her husband’s handler and talking about how she wishes they could have had another child. The widowed Salma (whose husband’s dour picture stares down over her dining room table) also misses her grown children and we see hints of her latent desire as she becomes better friends with the handsome Ziad. The inner lives of these women, as we learn about them, give the movie not just its humanity but its humor. Nuance is what makes this story a winner. There is a wryness that serves the lemon-like purpose of keeping the movie from being all one pathos-flavored affair. Abbas, who will be familiar to audiences of The Visitor, does most of her acting with her facial expression. She is not a woman to talk much but her face says a lot. B+

Rated PG. Directed by Eran Riklis and written by Suha Arraf and Eran Riklis, Lemon Tree is an hour and 46 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by IFC Films. It’s available on Comcast OnDemand under the IFC Films option.