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The Best Intentions: Eran Riklis's "Lemon Tree"

Indiewire By Jeff Reichert | Indiewire April 14, 2009 at 9:35AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

By now the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its myriad resultant inequities, is believed in most quarters to be nearly intractably complex. Given this, it's only natural that we'll have filmmakers like Eran Riklis, intent on compressing matters down into easily understandable, overlapping narrative strands that feint at post-Bush intricacy, all while not terribly covertly reintroducing tried-and-true good/bad schematics. Thankfully a few storylines short of the Haggis-esque, "Lemon Tree" is still hobbled by hewing too closely to that turgid dramatic playbook requiring unlikely love affairs (and attendant complications), tantalizingly incomplete arcs, and awkward character mirroring, all leaning on an edifice of shaky, opportunistic incidence. In short: mainstream storytelling.

That said, it's hard to fault "Lemon Tree" too much for trying to get a handle on the ongoing conflicts -- its heart is certainly in the right place -- even if it does overly clutter what might have been a sturdy missive from a region sorely lacking in multifacted cinematic representations. "Lemon Tree" is far from the grossly reductive borderline atrocity of "Crossing Over" (big-budget American cinema still retains its stranglehold on the politically reductive), but it doesn't approach the more intriguing open-ended querying of Avi Mograbi's "Avenge but One of My Two Eyes" or the wide-eyed peace-mongering of B.Z. Goldberg, Carlos Bolado, and Justine Shapiro's "Promises," either. Of course, holding a fiction feature up against two solid documentaries that sensitively probe similar ideas may be somewhat unfair, but it only illuminates the degree to which natural drama can (though need not always) be ill-served by layers of goopy artifice.

If anything, the story of Salma Zidane's (Hiam Abbass) fight to save her lemon grove from the encroaching security needs of her new neighbor, the Israeli Secretary of Defense Israel Navon (Doron Tavory), could have been rendered more successful had it been treated more simply. Inflating the proceedings by moving such an obvious and overweening symbol of government power into the house next door from the trodden-upon Palestinian peasantry may set up the film's big-time third-act Israeli Supreme Court showdown, but does that really help the material? Not to mention the tentative romance that blooms between widow Salma and her much younger, ambitious lawyer Ziad (Ali Suliman), credibly, sensitively performed, but still a largely incongruous diversion into old values vs. new that rests uneasily in Riklis's straightforward David vs. Goliath contraption.

Watching Abbass morph from head-scarfed and stony to sensual, resolved, and independent on the way to bereavement is something of a small marvel, and nearly salvages "Lemon Tree" entirely. Her evolution is twinned by the passage of Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), the wife of the Defense Minister, from nervous army spouse to minor-league crusader, an expedience that screams "Look how tough this is for everyone on both sides," but kills the movie every time the two women share a lingering shot/reverse shot from opposite sides of the border fence (cue "mysterious" Arabic melisma). Throughout, Riklis inserts a few creepily effective DV-shot segments that document the construction of the Separation Wall, eloquently suggesting the quietly firm poetic, visually based commentary "Lemon Tree" has traded for bombastic courtroom dramatics and easy melodrama. And his miraculous final shot accomplishes in a simple camera movement what the preceding 100 minutes of rhetoric only scrapes at: a harrowing sense of loss and tragedy rendered frighteningly immediate.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently directing his first film, Gerrymandering.]

This article is related to: In Theaters