In Lemon Tree, director Eran Riklis once again looks at the Arab-Israeli conflict from a human perspective, showing how, in a climate of suspicion and mistrust, politics can crush all who get in the way. Penned by his Syrian Bride collaborator Suha Arraf, this politically correct effort is somehow less touching and the structure is weaker, but it should follow the same commercial trajectory.
Lemon Tree's slot as opening film for Berlin's Panorama Special section is a good international launchpad and the film looks certain to find sympathetic audiences overseas (probably moreso than at home), mainly through festival exposure and TV rather than theatrical sales.
Faithful in spirit to current events, Lemon Tree pits poor Palestinian widow Salma Zidane (Abbass) whose only livelihood is the lemon grove next to her home, against Israel's mighty Minister of Defence, Israel Navon (Tabory).
When Salma is told to raze down her grove because it threatens the security of her new neighbour Navon, she decides to save the trees she has inherited from her father and take the case to court, assisted by a Moscow-educated Palestinian lawyer (Suliman). As might be expected, the Israeli media, left and right alike, enthusiastically participate in this seemingly-hopeless case, joined by the international press.
The Israeli authorities are as strict and unbending as ever, the reaction of the Palestinian elders is suitably old-fashioned, traditional and rigid and everything in Lemon Tree proceeds by the book. Each character is an archetype: the calculating Minister; his liberal, conscience-stricken wife Mira (Lipaz-Michael); the cynical jurists; the news-hungry press; one lenient young soldier being counter-balanced by one severe security agent, and so on.
An unnecessary, uneasy affair between Salma and her lawyer transpires - seemingly to hint at yet another front, Salma's defeat not only as a Palestinian but as a woman. Again, a parallel is provided by the minister's wife, Mira. She cannot accept her husband's attitude, packs up and leaves him before the final curtain, as he sits facing the infamous Separation Wall.
Back to a theme he has explored several times in the past, Riklis once again attempts to apply his formula - an absurd mix of humour and drama - which in this case veers too often towards melodrama. His sympathies evidently lies with the film's female characters, in particular Salma, and Abbass steps up to the plate with a towering performance, conveying a dignity and force which transcend the role's essential victimhood.
Apart from Abbass, the rest of the cast never goes much beyond cardboard characterisations and the plot itself follows a familiar course, never reaching beyond current affairs as reported by the media. Solid but unspectacular technical credits help this serviceable look at the apparently insoluble Arab-Israeli confrontation, taking a liberal, progressive perspective that will find general support both at home and overseas.
Eran Riklis Productions
ARTE France Cinema
United King Films
Citrus Film Investors
With the participation of CANAL+
The Israel Film Fund
Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre
Habib Shehadeh Hanna