by Matthew Vasiliauskas
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Trees have always seemed to play a significant role in the revelations and desires of human beings. From their roles in the Garden of Eden, to influencing countless authors like Theroux and Whitman, to even appearing on screen in films like Adaptation. Plant life, through its growth and eventual blossoming has always seemed a fitting metaphor when describing the human condition, and perhaps it was Willa Cather in her classic novel O Pioneers that said it best with, “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.”
This resignation to a way of life and its eventual questioning are central to director Eran Riklis’ latest film Lemon Tree.
The film follows a woman named Salma, a Palestinian widow who lives on the green line border between Israel and the West Bank. When the Israeli Defense Minister moves into the neighboring house opposite of Salma’s lemon grove, Salma discovers that the minister’s secret service has decided that her lemon trees pose a threat to the Minister’s safety and issues them to be cut down. 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 fight gains the attention of Mira Navon, the Defense Minister’s wife, who is trapped in her new home and an unhappy life. Despite the differences between them, the women develop a bond, which contributes to an awakening in both of them. Salma’s legal and personal journey lead her deep into the complex and often chaotic struggle taking place in the Middle East.
One of the strongest aspects of the piece are the performances by the actors. Hiam Abbass in her role as Salma, speaks volumes without uttering a word, allowing her face, lips and the almost hypnotic stare of her eyes to entrance and propel every scene forward she is in.
What Salma and Mira Navon share is a sense of loneliness within their separate lives. Riklis says, “This is really a film about solitude as it is reflected in the lives of two women- Salma on the Palestinian side and Mira, the defense Minister’s wife, on the Israeli one, and I guess that is what really drew me to it as well as all the other characters involved who somehow represent so many issues and subjects but all of them suffer from a kind of loneliness which is part of their lives on a personal and national level.”
The photography as well communicates the ideas of solitude and longing, and through Rainer Klausmann’s elegant and often captivating use of light and color, Salma’s grove is brought to life, showing it’s initial vibrancy all the way through its dying branches from a lack of water, creating both a beautiful and heartbreaking image of the characters themselves.
With all of the focus on this much disputed area, one must wonder whether this is a political film? Riklis explains, “I don’t believe in the term and find it outdated. Everything is political in this day and age and whatever you say, do or think has some kind of political impact or feedback. Decisions taken by distant policy makers have an immediate effect on people everywhere, in particular when you live in a ‘danger zone’ like the middle East, but also if you live in New York, Paris or Berlin for that matter. So Lemon Tree is not political, it is about people trapped in a political deadlock. The Defense Minister, his wife, Salma, her lawyer-they are all trapped within their own life, within their own personal and public situation and frame of mind.”
With strong performances, gorgeous photography and a moving story, Lemon Tree relates not only to the struggle taking place in the Middle East, but provides an examination of the common likes and desires of people everywhere.
Matthew Vasiliauskas is a writer.
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