The audio psychometric practice test played by the lone soldier surveying a fenced off lemon grove, posing questions of deduction and logical reasoning, doubles as running commentary throughout director Eran Riklis’ The Lemon Tree. The gunman stands between the new home of Israeli Defense Minister — purposefully named Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) — and the childhood home of Palestinian widow Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), “just in case.” And thus begins a confrontation of logic: the logic of military concern (the lemon grove as potential security threat) and that of a person’s rights (when does land become more than mere property?). Politically charged films such as The Lemon Tree, where metaphors are weighted in reality, run the risks tied to representation — at what point does metaphor obscure character, becoming a walking message void of actual life? Or in other words, is it a political film’s responsibility to do nothing more than convey its message?
Which is why Abbass’s performance is so important, reminding the audience that wandering lost among messages and party lines are people with immediate concerns. When her fellow Palestinians are more concerned with her honoring the memory of her 10-years deceased husband, or ensuring she refuses compensation from the Israeli government for the pending destruction of her lemon grove, her main source of income, Abbass stands stoically — and often unspeaking — alone. Similarly, when Israeli soldiers steal lemons from the grove she can no longer tend, the inconsistencies between policy and reality arise. Which isn’t to suggest that the character of Zidane, paralleled by Navon’s wife, avoids Riklis’ metaphor-treatment. Both represent ideals — wanting only to live peacefully with their families — yet consistently miss connecting with one another, by circumstance or bad timing.
Unfortunately, nearly lost among the obvious metaphors and connections are the more thought-provoking and incisive ones, such as the relationship between Zidane and the young Russian-educated Palestinian lawyer (appropriately) representing her case to keep her lemon grove, and the media’s involvement, seen in the journalist-friend of the Navon family who purposefully embarrasses the Defense Minister. And thus what would have elevated this film above the common Middle East discussion is lost in minor minutes of screen-time. Riklis spends too much time building a well-known situation only to leave the meaningful moments, that aren’t readily apparent, in their place, and rarely developed.