By Andy Lauer | Indiewire April 6, 2009 at 5:32AM
"The rare ability to make intelligent, entertaining cinema from hot-button current issues is beautifully illustrated by 'Lemon Tree,' a multifaceted drama straddling the Palestinian-Israeli chasm that's marbled with irony, generosity, anger and pure crowd-pleasing optimism," writes Variety's Derek Elley about Israeli director Eran Riklis' film, which opens April 17.
IFC Films, which is distributing the film, provides this synopsis: "Salma, a Palestinian widow, has to stand up against her new neighbor, the Israeli Defense Minister, when he moves into his new house opposite her lemon grove, on the green line border between Israel and the West Bank. The Israeli security forces are quick to declare that Salma's trees pose a threat to the Minister's safety and issue orders to uproot them. Together with Ziad Daud, her young Palestinian lawyer, Salma goes all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court to try and save her trees. Her struggle raises the interest of Mira Navon, the Defense minister's wife, who is trapped in her new home and in an unhappy life. Despite their differences and the borders between them the two women develop an invisible bond, while forbidden ties grow stronger between Salma and Ziad. Salma's legal and personal journey lead her deep into the complex, dark and sometimes funny chaos of the ongoing struggle in the Middle East, in which all players find themselves alone in their struggle to survive."
"Inspired by a real-life incident, this captivating Israeli film is both a compelling story of self-determination and an astute evaluation of the current state of a divided territory," writes Trevor Johnston for Time Out London. "['Lemon Tree'] encompasses wider issues beyond this admittedly engrossing legal mismatch. For one thing, it exposes the vulnerable position of a lone widow in a retrenched, conservative Arab community, yet it also allows for glimmers of compassion across the partisan rift, fascinatingly tracing a surprising complicity between Salma and the Defence Minister’s increasingly sceptical spouse... Mindful of its evidently symbolic import, yet generous to its characters on both sides, the story builds narrative momentum from its battling underdog through-line, yet there’s no hint of oversimplification."
A similarly enthusiastic review comes from the Hollywood Reporter's Ray Bennett who writes, "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." Bennett also praises the film for remaining soberingly realistic in its depiction of the conflict it examines. "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," he writes. "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."
A few critics have suggested, however, that the film's ideology is perhaps a bit simplistic. The Guardian's Andrew Pulver calls it "a well-meaning but somewhat obvious parable of the Middle East conflict," going on to say that "Director Riklis tries to make everyone look good - or at least human - and his film remains liberal to the end. But compared with the savage imagination of 'Waltz With Bashir,' it feels as though it's treading a little too carefully." In his review for The Mirror, David Edwards writes, "It’s a neat microcosm of the conflict, although a touch manipulative with the sympathies lying a little too heavily on the side of the Palestinians, with Salma a stoic, saintly presence and her neighbour merely an arrogant bully." However, he concludes that "there’s a clever ending and Abbass (so good in 'The Visitor') is solid in the lead role."
Indeed, nearly all critics have singled out the central performance from Hiam Abbass (best known for her role in "The Visitor") as particularly worthy of praise. "There’s a restrained dignity and intelligence she brings to a role that quietly commands attention... She plays Salma Zidane, a Palestinian widow, with the same understated gravitas that dominated 'The Visitor,'" writes Wendy Ide for The Times. "If at times 'Lemon Tree' can feel slightly schematic in its construction, with the supporting characters representing a spectrum of opinions, its humanity is encapsulated in the dignified performance of Abbas," says Tom Dawson for Channel 4 Film, in a review that also describes the film as "sensitively observed and patiently directed."
In anticipation of IFC's release of "Lemon Tree" next Friday, April 17, indieWIRE is pleased to present this exclusive clip from the film.