By Ray Bennett
BERLIN – Taking its cue from the old song, the fruit of Eran Riklis’ wise and poignant film “Lemon Tree” is as unpalatable as the age-old and relentless friction between Israel and the West Bank.
It’s a simple tale of a Palestinian woman who refuses to allow her lemon grove to be destroyed by the Israeli military, which claims that it might harbor terrorists. Its universal story of a stubborn individual who resists powerful forces and the two lonely women who connect as a result will resonate with grown-up audiences everywhere.
Hiam Abbass (pictured), who appeared in Riklis’ 2004 picture “The Syrian Bride,” stars as Salma Zidane, the sorrowful owner of a small lemon grove full of trees planted by her late father. Her husband died 10 years earlier and her children have grown and moved out.
Riklis and co-writer Suha Arraf take time to establish Salma’s relationship to the lemon trees as she tends them lovingly, sleeps in the shade of their branches, hears the fruit fall one by one, jars pickled lemons and makes very tasty lemonade.
Trouble comes along fast, however, when Israel’s new defense minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory), who makes political capital with bold statements about defending his nation from terrorists, moves into a house on the West Bank border right next to Salma’s lemon grove.
Barbed wire fences are swiftly erected along with a watchtower manned with machine-guns. Deciding that’s not enough, the Secret Service declares the lemon grove to be an immediate and deadly threat and orders the trees to be hacked down.
Determined to protect her family heritage, not to mention only source of income, Salma seeks the help of a lawyer, Ziad Doud (Ali Suliman), from a nearby refugee camp, to represent her and their case goes all the way to the Supreme Court.
As someone says in the film, happy endings are only for Hollywood movies and Riklis sustains a kind but unsentimental tone as the story develops several threads. Among these are a slow-burning love interest between the widow and her counsel, and the revelation that all is not well in the defense minister’s household.
His wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) misses their grown children as well as her frequently absent husband. As her loneliness grows, she begins to identify with the plight of her neighbor even though they remain virtual strangers.
The cast is uniformly fine but Abass and Lipaz-Michael shine as two women who bond in the fear that the best of their lives is over and neither of them is happy with what the future holds. It’s not a gloomy film but in his parable of the tiny differences than can separate nations, Riklis suggests there’s no great reason for optimism.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival, Panorama; Cast: Hiam Abbas; Ali Suliman; Rona Lipaz-Michael; Doron Tavory; Tarik Copty; Amos Lavie; Amnon Wolf; Smadar Yaaron; Ayelet Robinson; Danny Leshman; Director: Eran Riklis; Writers: Suha Arraf, Eran Riklis; Director of photography: Rainer Klausmann; Production designer: Miguel Merkin; Music: Habib Shehadeh Hanna; Co-producer: Ira Riklis; Costume designer: Rona Doron; Editor: Tova Ascher; Producers: Bettina Brokemper, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnierre, Michael Eckelt, Eran Riklis; Executive producers: Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, David Silber; Production: Eran Riklis Productions; No MPAA rating; running time 106 mins.