Salma’s Choice: Eran Riklis’ Sharp Allegory, Lemon Tree

Based on a real-life case, Lemon Tree is Israeli director Eran Riklis’ enriching (and thankfully, fairly straightforward) take on the Israeli-Palestinian logjam. Newly-appointed Israeli Defense Minister (Doron Tavory) muddles his State and estate concerns when he builds his house along the green line border — otherwise known as that combustible, fenced delineation between Israel and the West Bank. Unfortunately for his mind-of-her-own Palestinian neighbor Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), her widowed livelihood — a generation-old grove of lemon trees from which she picks and brews her “tasty” lemonade — is seen as a possible sanctum for terrorists with a sniping eye for Israel Navon (as the minister is pointedly named) or, god forbid, the missus Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael).  The cut-and-dry verdict: trim the trees, then compensate for the raze with cash. Of course, that cold, bottom-line logic in tandem with the go-to political rationale that the grove is a “real and imminent threat” neglects the trees’ symbolic import as a basic, incorruptible right: What’s Mine Is Mine. So despite a widespread lack of support from her patriarchal community, a determined Salma decides to take her dime-a-dozen case all the way to the marbled steps of Israel’s Supreme Court.

During Salma’s unexpected rise to notoriety — she becomes a media fixation with her one-woman intifadah, one outlet even hyping her tête-a-téte with Israel as “Lemon War I” — Riklis links her to a host of similarly lonesome souls, including a young soldier stationed in the just-raised watchtower who, to pass the hours of outdoor solitude, listens and nods off to his psychometric practice tests. Beyond that watchtower, the imprisoned Mira becomes Salma’s sympathetic foil and unspoken soulmate. A middle-aged beauty whose daughter attends university in Washington D.C. (where Salma’s son also resides), Mira also represents the trophy (and thus emotionally atrophying) wife: spruce as a Parisian, obviously bored, and constantly treated as if marked FRAGILE. Riklis, along with Palestinian-Israeli co-writer Suha Arraf, scripts several opportunities for the two to bond, yet none come to fruition. They’re on the same wavelength, so you wish they’d set up a tin-can communication system just to sate their curiosity. Yet, their silent and missed connections also hint at something more poignant (even if it’s sign-posted throughout): the want of personal relationships when sewn up in borders, whether societal or physical.

The women’s touch-and-go relationship is a world apart from Salma’s forbidden (due to her position as a Palestinian widow) and dubious dalliance with Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), the crafty, thirtysomething attorney who accepts her against-the-odds case while wearing a jacket with “champion” stitched on the crest. Although their short-lived (and chaste) affair spells out her desperation for a little tenderness too easily, it also doubles as the only romantic thread in the film: even married Mira doesn’t receive that sort of loving attention from Israel. In fact, there are signs of an affair between him and his secretary, but, for the most part, Israel is only caught answering to media-made claims that he’s “afraid of lemons.” Their on-the-fence marriage suffers its pivotal blow when Mira, by some osmotic effect, finds herself against her husband, propounding an opposing (read: compassionate rather than closed-off) approach to the backyard situation.

When the day of the anticipated trial finally arrives, Ziad confesses that, “only American movies have happy endings.” But without spoiling things, this largely engaging film ends on both a promising and compromised note for the characters on both sides. As maternal, sad-eyed Salma, Abbass makes for a commanding heroine; while her monumental strength is marvelous, it’s the momentary fits of weakness that make her an object of worship. With a face that bandies between careworn and radiant, Abbass’ dignified presence keeps the film from ascending above its modest, eye-level focus on the personal effects of an impersonal political decision. Indeed, Riklis takes a barbed, multifaceted situation and sensitively ushers the audience through a gamut of emotions that actually grip, from outrage to resignation, optimism to gentle laughter — for instance, the soldier confesses to Mira that his nickname is Quickie because he was the slowest trainee. In this laudably evenhanded look at the decisions made under the political auspice of security, Riklis poses an essential question: who’s terrorizing who?

Lemon Tree opens today in New York City. Click here for showtimes.