In Eran Riklis' modest drama, Salma (Hiam Abbass) is a middle-aged Palestinian widow living alone on the green line between Israel and the West Bank. She quietly ekes out a living from her family's small lemon grove. Then, the new Israeli Minister of Defense moves next door. The leafy trees are deemed a security risk, and ordered to be cut down. Salma, with the help of a young Palestinian lawyer, Ziad (Ali Suliman), fights back. The grove is fenced off, pending a decision. Lurking on the sidelines, but only minimally entering the fray, is the minster's neglected wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), who spends her days at home staring into the contested grove.
Riklis, who also co-wrote the screenplay, tells the story from both sides, though Salma is clearly the aggrieved party, and thus more sympathetic. (Also, Abbass gives a marvelously soulful performance.)
The film focuses chiefly on the women, and their roles in both this conflict and their wider communities. Salma and Mira each muster stands, but the real power ultimately rests with the men. (Riklis makes the rather tepid insinuation that left to their own devices, the women would sort it out. Perhaps -- and perhaps these two would -- but the assumption that women are inherent peacemakers, even in this fraught, contentious place, seems a bit facile.)
Rooted in real events, the film functions as an engaging story in its own right, and also as commentary about the ongoing inability of these two groups of people to literally live side by side.
At times, Lemon Tree feels a bit like Mid-East Conflict 101, with its simplistic symbolism (from shots of rotting fruit to the construction of a wall), and its characters who reiterate history to support their claims. But the quiet pace, fine acting and a certain sun-drenched lyricism keep this film from being a polemic.
It all ends with a judgment worthy of King Solomon and a bitter comment on available compromises. Happy endings, as Salma's lawyer notes, are only in American movies. In Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles. Starts Fri., May 22. Manor