Returning to the theme of patriarchal dominance and its distorting effect on social and political progress in the Middle East, previously explored in The Syrian Bride, Israeli director Eran Riklis shifts his focus in Lemon Tree from the Golan Heights to the epicenter of regional tensions, the Green Line separating Israel proper from the occupied territories in the West Bank. In the border town of Zur HaSharon, the arrival of new neighbors, Israeli Defense Minister Israel (Doron Tavory) and his wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), turns life upside down for middle-aged widow Salma (Hiam Abbass) when their aggressive security detail threatens her subsistence living and dignity by insisting that a family-legacy lemon grove abutting the minister’s property be razed, under the questionable pretense that it could be appropriated as a terrorist’s sniper nest.
Taking the unorthodox step of suing the minister in Israeli court, Salma upends expectations of how a Palestinian woman should respond to flagrant injustice and awakens in herself repressed impulses toward freedom of movement and choice, expressed first in her unwelcome stroll into a men-only Palestinian rec room to solicit help for her cause, then later in her deepening feelings for 34-year-old Ziad (Ali Suliman), the Palestinian lawyer who reluctantly takes her case. Embodying her community’s disapproval in both instances is a nosy, paternalistic neighbor (Makram Khoury, also a staunch traditionalist in Syrian Bride) while observing from across the Green Line is Mira, who, spurred toward a similar fit of boundary-testing, meets (in one of many forced parallels) with a similar pushback, first from her heavy-handed husband, who implicates her in the security nightmare by claiming her safety necessitates it, then from guards who physically block her attempt to traverse the barrier in order to meet Salma, by that point a cynical cause célèbre of the Israeli media.
A willingness to circumvent physical barriers to movement, demonstrated in Salma’s defiant climbing of the fence erected around her grove and in Mira’s inviting a journalist into her home to send a message she can’t deliver personally, comes to symbolize the need for inventiveness and dogged persistence in combating the region’s seemingly inexorable slide into atrophy. Hitting the same note, but less subtly, is Riklis’s incessant pointing to the decaying lemon grove itself, which is malnourished by inattentive soldiers, and his staging of episodes of cultural dissonance that practically defy belief, such as when revelers at an Israeli-side-of-the-line garden party begin wantonly swiping lemons from the grove to tart up their drinks, oblivious to the outrage it generates.
Having labored to stage the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in miniature, Riklis—along with feminist journalist and self-described Palestinian-Israeli co-scripter Suha Arraf—is ultimately unable to center his attention on any one of its multiple fissures and reflexively allows Lemon Tree to rest on its aura of subliminal female solidarity, communicated most poignantly through its protagonists’ shared, penetrating glances across the line as well as through the dual framing of their no-man-will-save-us plight. Femininity as an inextinguishable sixth sense becomes the film’s thesis, with a romantic moment between Salma and Ziad undiminished by the procession of lights from the separation wall blazing an ugly neon glare through her kitchen window, and Mira’s virtual confinement in her luxury home unable to deter her from sniffing out her husband’s infidelity. The shots that form the film’s epilogue, of a car speeding away and an isolated figure contemplating the future amid a changed landscape, signify that hope and renewal remain possibilities for Palestinian and Israeli women, even if their paths do not converge.