Movie Review: Heavy metaphor, sweet acting

Lemon Tree tries to interweave the personal and the political but soon begins to sink under the ideological baggage placed on its characters.

hiam abbass 88 (photo credit: )
hiam abbass 88
(photo credit: )
LEMON TREE Three and a haf stars Hebrew title: Etz limon. 106 min. In Arabic and Hebrew, some prints have English and Hebrew titles (others have only Hebrew titles) What I will remember most about Eran Riklis' Lemon Tree is its star, Hiam Abbass, and most particularly, her eyes. She has the most expressive eyes I can remember seeing on screen in a long time. One glance into those eyes tells you everything you need to know about her character, Salma, a Palestinian widow who lost her parents young and has little to remember them by except for the lemon grove she earns her living from. She is dutiful and hard-working, but a repressed rage and unspeakable loneliness are always there, just beneath the surface. Her screen presence and acting are so powerful that at times they make everything else in the film seem insignificant. In spite of the fact that the entire cast is excellent, I just wanted to see more of Abbass. This is true whenever the actress is in a movie. Like most audiences, I discovered Abbass in Riklis' previous film, The Syrian Bride (2004), in which she plays the older sister of the title character. Abbass' Amal also expressed the main conflicts and themes in that film with her quiet but steely presence. From then on, I've looked forward to seeing her whenever she was in a movie, even in small roles, such as in Paradise Now, where she played the mother of one of the terrorists; Munich, where she plays a terrorist's wife; or Free Zone, where her appearance breathed life into a clunky and contrived story. In Lemon Tree, as in all her movies, it's hard to pay much attention to anyone else when she's on screen. That's good for Abbass and the audience, but in this case, it's bad in some ways for the story, which is a human drama and a political allegory at the same time. Although Riklis and his co-writer, Suha Arraf (who also collaborated with him on the script for The Syrian Bride) mean to tell a multilayered story from many points of view, it's Salma we care about. It's her story and we are completely in her sway from beginning to end. An opening title says the film is based on a true story. When I questioned the director, he said it was based on 100,000 true stories. While I understand what he means, it might have been more effective to base the story on a single incident, because then Salma might have had a few quirks that would have made her into more of a flawed, realistic character. Nobility simply radiates from the star, and while I was utterly captivated by her, she had a presence rather than a personality. Salma ekes out a living from the fruit in her lemon grove, helped by the servant (Tarik Copty), who helped raise her after her parents' deaths. Her grown daughter is busy with her own family, while her son is in Washington, DC, working in a restaurant and planning to study there, so she spends most of her time alone. Her life changes suddenly when the Israeli defense minister (Doron Tavory) moves into a house just over the Green Line from hers. His security team determines that her grove poses a danger and gets an order saying she must cut down her trees. She decides to fight this in the legal system, although everyone tells her she has no chance. The most interesting scenes in the film are the ones between her and Ziad, a Palestinian divorce lawyer (Ali Suliman, who starred in The Kingdom and Paradise Now), who sees her case as a way to redeem himself. He suffers from guilt because he has abandoned his Russian wife and daughter in Moscow, where he studied law. Although he is young enough to be her son, an attraction develops between them, slowly and gracefully. There is another parallel storyline that involves the defense minister and his family. He is having an affair with his blond-bombshell secretary, while his tense wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), swallows her pride and ignores the situation. What she can't ignore, though, is her loneliness and when they move to this isolated house in the country opposite Salma's lemon grove, she becomes fascinated with the neighbor she can never know. Just as Salma is galvanized to take action to fight for her lemon grove, Mira becomes involved in the struggle as well, using the media to help Salma. The movie tries to interweave the personal and the political, as Riklis did so successfully in The Syrian Bride. But the film soon begins to sink under the weight of the ideological baggage placed on its characters. We're told what to think and whom to like in a way that short-circuits the chance for real drama. While the storylines may sound and even are interesting, the defense minister is such a slimeball it throws off the rest of the film. To Riklis' credit, the minister is a personal slimeball, not a political one (his statements to reporters and colleagues are moderate and he never rails against Arabs), but it's impossible to do anything but root for him to get his comeuppance. Still, the screenplay has thoughtful passages and the actors all shine. Ali Suliman and Rona Lipaz-Michael give strong, winning performances in complex roles. But this is Abbass' movie from beginning to end, and there is more drama in how tightly she decides to fasten her head covering from scene to scene than during the entire running time of most other movies. She is both an outstanding actress and a true star. I can understand Riklis' temptation to put her on a pedestal, as he does in much of this movie, but I wish he had resisted it a little bit more. He also works the bittersweet lemons metaphor a little too hard for my taste, although you will leave the theater craving a glass of the lemonade Salma prepares so lovingly in several scenes. To paraphrase the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, most movies give you so little, it's hard to ask for more from one as thoughtful as this. I would have liked to see Salma have a bitchy moment, or express some other emotion that wasn't larger than life. But the Riklis-Arraf-Abbass partnership is still a strong one and I look forward to the next movie that this talented trio makes together.