Lemon Tree (Etz Limon)

Lemon Tree

Tarik Kopty finds himself with a strange urge for lemonade.

(IFC) Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Danny Leshman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Tarik Kopty, Amnon Wolf, Doran Tavory, Amos Lavie, Smadar Yaaron, Hili Yalon. Directed by Eran Riklis

Simple things can turn into complicated issues without much urging. We have a wonderful talent as a species of turning a molehill into an insurmountable mountain.

Salma (Abbass) is a Palestinian widow living on the edge of the West Bank eking out a living from a lemon grove that has been in her family for generations. With only the elderly Abu Hussein (Kopty) to assist her – her son has fled to America to find opportunity as a dishwasher – she cares for her lemon trees with meticulousness born of generations of love for the trees she has been given custodianship for. She is able to sell her lemons at market and maintain her household in that fashion.

That is, until the somewhat smarmy Israeli defense minister (Tavory) moves in to the large house bordering the other side of her grove, on the Israeli side of the border. His security detail sees the grove as a threat – why, terrorists could hide among the trees and launch an attack on the home of the minister. Salma is ordered to cut down her grove, for which she will be properly compensated by the Israeli government.

To Salma, this would be the equivalent of a mother being asked to smother her babies. It’s not merely a source of income to her – the grove is a connection with her family’s past. She balks at the order and puts in for an appeal with the Israeli military. In order to help her navigate the tricky waters of the Israeli appeal process, she needs a lawyer. She specifically wants a Palestinian lawyer since she doesn’t trust the Israeli lawyers but none of them will take the job. None of them, that is, besides Ziad Daud (Suliman), a young lawyer trying to establish himself.

The case becomes a cause célèbre in the Israeli news media, and the minister finds increasingly that he is becoming an unsympathetic figure. Even his own wife (Lipaz-Michael) doesn’t support his cause. He is becoming increasingly less comfortable with the attention and is eager for the case to come to a conclusion.

To make matters worse, the grove has been barricaded by the military pending the outcome of the trial and is overseen by armed soldiers, with Salma being banned from tending to her trees which are slowly beginning to die, lending urgency to the situation. To make matters worse, Salma and Ziad are beginning to feel a strong attraction for one another, which is bringing further frowns to the faces of the Palestinian village elders.

This is loosely based on an actual incident. Director Riklis, who also helmed The Syrian Bride (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), is a solid storyteller who wastes no motions. This is his strongest work to date, and it’s clear that Abbass, who also starred in The Syrian Bride, has an excellent rapport with the director.

She is at the moral and physical center of the film, in nearly every scene and she handles herself with serenity and calm, but with just a hint of fiery sensuality that makes her scenes with Suliman provocative. Salma is a very strong and determined woman, well aware of her expected role as a widow in her community but she is also a woman, and a beautiful one at that. This is the kind of performance that gets overlooked by the American film community but is nonetheless worth seeing.

This is neither pro or anti Palestinian. It doesn’t take sides in the conflict other than to acknowledge that the people getting hurt are the innocents caught in the middle who are merely trying to live out their lives in peace, as Salma is. It takes some shots at the traditional roles of woman in the region, and for that alone its worth watching.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern David-and-Goliath fable that is an allegory about Israeli-Palestinian issues even as it explores the role of women in both cultures. Outstanding work by Abbass as Salma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting roles might have been fleshed out a bit more.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality and sexual tension, and a little bit of foul language but generally acceptable viewing for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hiam Abbass won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for her work in this movie.



TOMORROW: The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations

The Syrian Bride

The Syrian Bride

A beautiful bride in a war zone makes for a compelling image.

(Koch-Lorber) Hiyam Abbass, Makram J. Khoury, Clara Khoury, Ashraf Barhom, Eyad Sheety, Evelyne Kaplun, Julie-Anne Roth, Adnan Trabshi. Directed by Eran Ricklis.

The Druze are an ethnic group living in the Golan Heights, an area occupied by Israel but claimed by Syria. Their passports list their country of origin as “unaffiliated” although many think of themselves as Syrian. Their lives are a kind of grey area where they live in one world in which they are more or less at peace but their hearts yearn for another world entirely.

Mona (Clara Khoury) is a beautiful young Druze woman who is about to get married. This should be a happy occasion, but there are many reasons why the young woman appears sad and depressed. She is in an arranged marriage with a Syrian actor whom she has never met. In order to marry, she must immigrate to Syria with her new husband. Once she does that, she will not be allowed to return to Israel to see her family, potentially for the rest of her life.

Hammed (Makram Khoury and Clara’s real life father) is the family patriarch who has already been jailed by the Israelis for his pro-Syrian activism. Embittered by the experience, he plans to attend a protest march on the day of the wedding despite the ramifications that might have on his daughter’s big day. Recently paroled, he has been told that he won’t be allowed to the border area, a sensitive military zone, to see his daughter off.

He has rocky relationships with his sons. Marwan (Barhoum) is a slick salesman who travels frequently to Europe. He calls himself a businessman but offers only vague explanations as to what that business actually is. A serial womanizer, he allows his charm and rakish good looks to scam his way through life. Hattem (Sheety) hasn’t spoken with his father in eight years after moving to Russia and marrying a Russian doctor. Outcast by the village elders, Hattem has returned for his sister’s wedding hoping to repair the damage in the relationship with his family bringing his tow his somewhat nervous wife and a son named for his father.

Orchestrating most of this is Amal (Abbass), the older sister. Married to a conservative man who has a somewhat bronze age view of women, she is independent, smart and ambitious. Intending to attend college in Israel now that her daughter is nearly grown, she is meeting stiff resistance from her husband who is more afraid of what the village will think than what will make his wife happy.

The wedding party soon makes its way to the immigration officer at the border where Mona presents her passport for the journey to a new life. However a new stamp, new Israeli policies and stubborn Syrian military officers jeopardize the wedding, which could leave Mona in a no-man’s land; a bride without a groom, a woman without a country.

Director Ricklis presents a story simply told about a situation which is not uncommon in that part of the world. Taking no sides, he instead lets the richly drawn characters tell the tale. But despite the movie’s title, this is less Mona’s movie than it is Amal’s. She is the driving force of the story and Abbass plays her like a young Irene Pappas with a bit of Sophia Loren mixed in.

I’ve always been fond of movies that present a slice of life in a part of the world that we don’t get to see much of on the evening news or in major movies. There have been quite a few of those types of movies emerging from the Middle East lately; The Band’s Visit, Paradise Now and Rana’s Wedding are just a few of the better ones. Ricklis wisely doesn’t cast stones here; he presents the situation as a fact of life, and that suits the story better.

Makram Khoury plays Hammed as a smart but bitter man, one who loves his family but might love his cause just a little bit more. While this is Amal’s movie, his journey from the stiff-necked patriarch to loving father during the course of the film is equally as compelling. While Hammed’s family is plainly dysfunctional, it is also just as plainly tight-knit. They bicker, yes, but they also come to one another’s aid when the situation calls for it. These are smart, independent people, and I would love to get to know them just a little bit better.

Cinematographer Michael Weisweg does an outstanding job of framing compelling images, such as a beautiful bride walking slowly in a demilitarized zone past signs warning of land mines, and of the desolate but oddly beautiful landscape of the Golan Heights. It’s a beautiful movie to look at.

One of the things I loved about the movie is the ambiguous ending, although some might be frustrated by this. Like the situation itself, there are no easy solutions and things are only going to change when somebody decides to lay down their rage and suspicions and make peace. Until then, movies like The Syrian Bride are going to be all-too-common.

REASONS TO RENT: A slice of life set in a world we see very little of in the States. Strong performance by Abbass. Gorgeous cinematography capturing compelling images.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many characters in the family (such as the story of Amal’s daughter who is in love with a man her father disapproves of) that muddy up the plot. Ambiguous ending may frustrate some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some harsh language but otherwise nothing not suitable for entire families. Younger sorts might not understand the complex issues presented here.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming had to be done in two different Druze villages, one pro-Syrian the other pro-Israeli. Which village was filmed in that day depended on the political leaning of the scene. Since the Israeli government wouldn’t allow filming to take place at the actual border, a mock-up was constructed some miles away.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The commentary from director Riklis gives additional insight into the history of the conflict and how it affects those living in the region.


TOMORROW: Avenue Montaigne