The theme song to this Israeli movie is, yes, "Lemon Tree," the folk-pop number made popular in the 1960s by Peter, Paul and Mary, and as the opening credits roll, the nostalgic overtones of such a lilting chestnut hint at heartwarming adult drama to come. By the end credits, the bitterness in the song's bittersweet melody comes to the fore and the lyric that jumps out is the refrain "the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat." What transpires in between features plenty of heartwarming adult-drama hallmarks, to be sure-a mature attraction, middle-aged dissatisfaction, mild courtroom drama-but Lemon Tree's setting on the border between Israel proper and the Palestinian West Bank removes director/co-writer Eran Riklis' movie from any rote category.
The title isn't an abstract metaphor: Palestinian widow Salma (a revelatory Hiam Abbass) tends her family's lemon grove adjacent to the line. When new Israeli Defense Minister (Doron Tavory) and his wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) move into a new suburban development just across the fence, their security team sizes up the trees as good terrorist-harboring cover and moves to have the grove razed. Her entire life and livelihood threatened, Salma enlists down-at-the-heels bachelor attorney Ziad (Ali Suliman) to fight the order in the courts, and finds herself fighting a mutual attraction to the younger man as well. Meanwhile, empty-nester Mira, despite all outward appearances of living the good life, finds politics-and her husband's political career-dragging down her marriage, leaving her feeling almost as trapped and lonely as her Palestinian neighbor.
Lemon Tree is ripe with sometimes wry, sometimes acid pokes at the intertwined yet intractable relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, mainly aimed at the Israeli half: Mira and her husband host a housewarming featuring kosher Arab catering, and the minister is careful to note in a press conference that a hulking concrete-slab wall being built between the two sides will feature "a promenade, as a treat for the locals." At the same time, there are a pair of more nuanced, intimate relationships at the heart of this story-between Mira and her husband and, especially, between star-crossed Salma and Ziad-that help keep the movie away from pure polemics. (Would that there were more good roles in Hollywood for actors as fine as Abbass and Suliman.) Humane and clear-eyed throughout, Lemon Tree concludes with a pair of shots that plainly comment on the damage done by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian divide, and it totally earns them.