by Ohad Landesman
Dir. Eran Riklis, Israel, IFC Films
Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis has been making films since the Eighties, but it was with his emotional 2004 family drama The Syrian Bride, which fully realized, in both a comic and tragic manner, the absurdity of the political relationship between Syria and Israel, that I first began to respect and admire him. In telling its story of the wedding day of Mona, a young Druze woman about to marry a Syrian television star she has never met and move to Syria, from where she can never return, Riklis cleverly and compassionately turned the act of crossing borders into a metaphor for confrontation of psychological boundaries. Characters in The Syrian Bride become hopelessly “stuck” in a geographical no man’s land in which they cannot easily respond to the situation they are facing.
Five years later, with Lemon Tree Riklis aspires slightly higher, focusing on a practical deadlock in another geographical twilight zone: a fight over a lemon tree grove placed on the green line border between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Here, he wants to use the story as a political allegory not only for the conflicted personal lives of the characters but also for the chaotic ongoing struggle in the Middle East. The dramatic treatment of this metaphor, however, even if at times quite effective, also feels schematic and redundant, reminiscent of the crudely overstated and overloaded Israeli political films of the 1980s. This comes as a surprise to me, especially since Riklis’s own Cup Final (1991) may very well be the film that marked the end of that era, and the beginning of a new wave in Israeli cinema, characterized by refined aesthetics and narrative subtlety.
The protagonist of Riklis’s new film is Palestinian widow Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), who inherited the lemon tree grove from her father. New security orders have declared the grove a threat to the safety of her new neighbor, Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavori), a hiding place for potential terrorists, and authorities move to uproot it. To her rescue arrives Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), a young Palestinian lawyer who takes her case all the way up to the Israeli Supreme Court. The further it escalates, the more Mira Navon (Rona Lipaz-Michael), the Minister’s wife, becomes interested in Salma’s case. Mira, who feels lonely in her new house, identifies with Salma without ever meeting her, and learns a few things along the way about her husband, her responsibilities as the Minister’s wife, and the meaning of her own life.
Lemon Tree is based on the real-life events surrounding a similar territorial struggle over a grove built next to Israel’s former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Despite these events, the film is less interested in approximating real people than having its characters stand in metaphorically for large-scale ideas. Take Defense Minister Israel Navon (in Hebrew “clever Israel”), whose wife unconvincingly stands by and defends him by reminiscing that “Israel has killed many Arabs in his life, but everything he did he did to protect us.” (Hint, hint.) Then, there’s the mirror-image relationship established between Mira and Salma, living on both sides of the grove; this stands as more than merely a personal equation between two strong and opinionated women—the analogy is, of course, meant to work on a broader national level, suggesting a hopeful and optimistic chance for communication and understanding between Israel and Palestine. Mira is the only person on the Israeli front sincerely willing to understand Salma’s viewpoint, and clearly the refusal of the Israelis to hear and see the other side is to blame here. “If only you could just listen . . .” says Mira to her husband, “but as usual, you prefer to ignore the reality.” Is it enough, though, to provide the viewer with such a politically loaded scenario and then offer a clichéd suggestion that the conflict could be resolved if only both sides would listen to each other?
As in Riklis’s other films, the narrative is motivated and led by women. Abbas, a remarkable Palestinian actress with undeniable presence (last seen in the U.S. in The Visitor), puts the burden of her nation’s struggle on her shoulders. “I wish I had half the courage you have,” says Daud, who also goes against all odds by fighting the Israelis in their own court. Particularly noteworthy is how Riklis expresses the interior lives of Salma and Mira based on their ties to their homes and land. While the widowed Salma, living alone next to a grove she inherited from her late father, has a profound bond with her territory, Mira feels trapped alone inside a new house she just designed, and her connection to that place called home seems nonterritorial and ephemeral. Riklis cleverly points to the irony of a nation fighting over a land that just might matter less to its people than to the Palestinians.
If Riklis sometimes presents his themes subtly, there are also some unnecessary and awkward narrative shortcuts taken and the tone wavers. During a huge housewarming dinner party that Mira organizes, the catering people face a serious problem: They simply forgot to bring . . . guess what? Lemons! Therefore, with considerable chutzpah, the Israeli team enters the grove that Salma is herself forbidden to enter. The event feels so narratively forced that I was willing to isolate it as irrelevant. But then the brief trial scenes, harboring so much potential for illuminating the viewer about the absurdity of the issue at stake, or merely dramatizing an explosive confrontation, are similarly contrived. Finally, there’s Private Itamar, aka “Quickie,” a young soldier studying for the psychometric exam during his shifts as a watch guard overlooking the grove. Quickie’s scenes, where we repeatedly hear a computerized voice emanating from the grove presenting the solider with banal problems of logic, are intended to provide comic relief within a rather bleak narrative, but they’re so carelessly written and performed that they are unable to supply this critical tone of black humor.
It’s not just with character and script that Lemon Tree feels less successful than Riklis’s prior film. I kept thinking while watching it how much I wish Riklis had not abandoned the use of the 2.35:1 ratio, which served him so well in The Syrian Bride. The democratic quality of this format—which grants a viewer the ability to choose between elements in the frame—could have been the ideal choice for the geography of the film. Nevertheless, the last shot of Lemon Tree lingered with me for days: We see the Minister, trapped in his own house behind a tall fence he just built to further isolate him from Salma’s property, a barrier reminiscent of the infamous Separation Wall. The camera moves across the wall and onto the other side, exposing a trimmed, desert-like grove. Considering in comparison the last shot in The Syrian Bride, a haunting image of desperation and hope that shows Mona walking fearlessly and against all odds towards the Syrian border, I was left to notice how irregularly political optimism is served in Israeli cinema these days.