The problems with Eran Riklis’ Israeli arthouse/festival hit Lemon Tree begin early. Playing a raga version of Will Holt’s old folkie chestnut “Lemon Tree” atop the opening credits underlines the film’s overriding motif with a heavy stripe of yellow crayon, and from then on if there’s a way to thematically shoe-horn lemons into the movie, the director finds it. About the only lemon metaphor not called into service here is the slang use for a hard-luck used car. It may be in there somewhere, but perhaps by then I was simply too puckered to see it.
Lemon Tree is, alas sorely lacking in subtlety and sophistication. I’m sure there are those who will find the narrow simplicity of the plot to be its salient virtue, a nod to Kafka or to cautionary fables, but in reality it seems less of a nod and more of a bow to schmaltzy Hollywood paradigms. To be sure, it’s brave of Riklis, an Israeli filmmaker, to exhibit such pro-Palestinian sympathies, but beyond that we’re given a film where the villains are too villainous, and the victim a little too victimized. Add to this an almost pathological confidence in the totemic value of the lemon, and a viewer can be forgiven for a more-than-occasional roll of the eyes.
The actual story achieves cruising speed with a minimum of meandering, which is surprising for this kind of intimate political parable. Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) has, somewhat inexplicably, moved into a house on his country’s border with Palestine. But as we begin to see, Navon is the very epitome of nearly unconscious hubris and banality, and one can almost let it go that he’d pick such a volatile perch on which to live with his wife, Mira (Rona Lapaz-Michael). The Minister and his security minions immediately begin unspooling razor wire and erecting guard towers to protect the house from the hostile neighbors.
Just on the other side of the border lives a widow named Salma, whose sole source of income is her lemon grove. Played to pitch-perfection by the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (nearly as memorable as Richard Jenkins in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, from 2007), Salma is woefully ill-equipped emotionally for the Israeli secret service proclaiming her little orchard a potential terrorism risk. After all, the security chief asserts, a terrorist could hide amongst those trees and lob almost anything over the fence, straight into the Minister’s backyard.
In no time at all, the uprooting of this 100-year-old stand of lemon trees becomes “an absolute military necessity.” Salma is served notice of this decision, which includes an offer of compensation. When the village patriarchs tell her she is forbidden to take money from the Israelis, the widow decides to fight the order, with the help of a young divorce attorney played by Ali Suliman (who’s acted with Abbass before in both Paradise Now and Riklis’ prior festival hit, The Syrian Bride).
The ensuing legal battle doesn’t contain many surprises. David and Goliath are mentioned more than once, the Israeli judges and lawyers are dismissive at best, and much is made of lemons. The more intimate details of the story are no more revelatory, but the acting is fine enough that these at least give reason for the viewer’s continued attentions. Mira begins to see the fault-lines in her marriage just a few short days after the move, suspecting her husband to be a womanizer (which is only hinted at, though broadly) and a blowhard (which is glaringly obvious to everyone). She’s left alone a great deal of the time and she’s suffering from a strong case of Empty Nest Syndrome.
Slowly, as this lawsuit picks up steam and begins to bully public opinion from the front pages of tabloids, Mira develops some compassion for Salma’s plight and eventually betrays her husband rather boldly. And besides, the lemon grove is about the only attractive view from her backyard, which has been fortified into a sterile gray armory. Though some real communication between the two troubled women seems inevitable, Riklis stays his hand. Mira musters an apology for sending her dinner party caterers into Salma’s orchard to steal some lemons for hummus, and Salma stares back proudly with her chin in the air.
In addition, we’re nearly treated to a love affair between the lawyer Ziad who, for some odd reason, won’t stop smelling his hands, and Salma, but once again the director proves stubborn. The chemistry between the older widow and her ineffective solicitor seems game enough, but it’s a no-go, another dead-end in a narrative line unfortunately plagued with them.
But what’s to make of a film so over-loaded with lemons — with pitchers of lemonade, spilled lemons rolling around forlornly on a kitchen floor as signifiers of loss, a lemon-colored light cast brazenly across Salma and her attorney when they kiss and extinguished promptly at the end of the embrace — that won’t give in to our need for satisfying resolutions, even if they’re bittersweet? Lemon Tree is gratingly sentimental beneath the surface, beneath the narrative, which is actually more annoying than having Mira divorce her bastard of a husband, win the new house in a divorce settlement, invite Salma and her cute lawyer to move in upstairs, cut down the fence so they can share the lemons in perpetuity and live in lemon-light bathed swellness until all the region’s bothersome political troubles come to an end.
There are plenty of commercial shortcuts in the movie, plenty of crucial moments where subtlety and realism are sacrificed for a minor laugh or a tug at the heart, but none of them serve to do what such shortcuts and swelling strings are meant to do: Sell a theme to a broad audience by diluting the brutality of life with a few splashy strokes of wish-fulfillment. It would certainly be different if Lemon Tree started out tough and uncompromising, and stuck to its political guns, but there’s an element of wistful fantasy here that doesn’t quite fit with Riklis’ patented social rigorousness.
Strangely, it’s the humor that works best in the film. A soldier in the guard tower named Quickie gets the majority of the laughs, and in his over-sized helmet and patchwork uniform he comes uncomfortably close to being the kind of clownish comic relief you’d find in serious films from the ’40s; a prat-falling dunderhead who stands off to the side sniffling and holding a bouquet of wilted daisies while the leading man and lady share a long-overdue lip-lock. Quickie spends his frightfully ineffectual days high above Salma’s lemon grove, ostensibly looking for terrorists creeping to the fence in order to lob hand grenades at the the Defense Minister’s patio furniture. In reality, though, he’s learning verbal acuity and logic comprehension by listening to a series of “self-testing psychometric test” tapes.
Throughout the film, these tapes serve as witty, surreal commentary on political double-speak, racial stereotypes, and the absurdity of the conflict in general. While Salma, Navon, Mira, and others play out an escalating miniature of Arab-Israeli strife, we’re treated to such audio-book brain-teasers as “Does knowing the end of a movie ruin it for you?” and useful knowledge about the wolves in Malaysia, the beards of Namibian fishermen, how much a fries and a hot dog cost in shekels, and the fact that “footballers don’t believe in Confucius”.
Another fine touch is the photograph of Salma’s dearly departed husband hanging on the wall of her home. He doesn’t look like much, to say the least, what with his lazy eye, trout lips, and lack of a neck, but somehow the portrait’s gaze thwarts Ziad’s romantic ambitions repeatedly. Writing this, I’m compelled to reconsider Lemon Tree as a comedy, but that just isn’t the tone it takes. As a satire, it might have been a far more engaging film, in fact. Even then, however, it would need sharpening.
Abbas, though, is far too talented to be the cardboard heroine of a bureaucratic satire. Her face has been creased in the most beautiful ways by middle age (I’ll risk impropriety and let on that she’s 50-years-old) and her often lupine eyes deftly juggle polite timidity, fierce pride, and even a bit of subdued carnality. Though I think we’re supposed to believe the relationship between she and the lawyer is more about mutual affection than lust, Abbas generates a startling amount of heat.
At the end of the movie, when an absurd verdict has been reached on the future of Salma’s lemon grove, Ziad comments to the press, “It appears that only American movies have a happy end.” But with all this whimsy, and all these bright yellow lemons in play, would it have killed Riklis to allow his characters a modicum of movie happiness? To be fair, Lemon Tree is based on a true story, in which an Israeli politico uses his clout to get an Arab-owned olive orchard razed, but once you’ve changed those olive vines to lemons (so very many lemons) we’re in Movieland, and in Movieland there’s some wiggle room.