Lemon Tree is an Israeli movie, but its protagonist is a Palestinian woman, whom it paints as a wholly sympathetic character.
The Israeli defense minister and his wife move to a lavish home right along where the Palestinians are now fenced and walled in. Their immediate neighbor, on the other side of the fence, is a humble Palestinian woman who ekes out a living tending to her grove of lemon trees.
Much of the ensuing plot turns on the need to juggle the security concerns of the soldiers protecting the defense minister, who say they need to cut down the trees so no Palestinians can hide amongst them to attack the house, and the emotional and financial commitment of the woman to the grove that has long been in her family. Yet one could certainly ask, of all the places the defense minister could live, why move a few feet away from the Palestinians and then complain about security issues? Is it just a way of thumbing their nose at the Palestinians, establishing that they’re not going to be limited in where they can live in their own country?
There’s no implication of hostility or defiance like that, though. As Israeli bigwigs go, the defense minister isn’t particularly hateful or unsympathetic toward the Palestinians. His wife is even less of that type; it’s hard to see her going along with a symbolically intentionally provocative move like that.
So I don’t know why he’s there, but all he succeeds in doing is creating headaches for his bodyguards and causing an international incident with an underdog Palestinian widow.
Anyway, the woman goes to court to fight the plan to chop down her lemon trees, assisted by a young Palestinian attorney. A friendship develops, with—despite the age difference—certain romantic overtones.
The wife of the defense minister grows increasingly unhappy about how their neighbor is being treated, but struggles with how and how much to take a stand against it.
The Israelis are not presented as unambiguous villains, though they do have the overbearing style to varying degrees of people who have an overwhelming edge in firepower and are used to successfully asserting their will.
The Palestinians are mostly depicted as victims, but again not completely and not simplistically. Indeed, a couple of things that caught my attention were incidents where it was Palestinians who were oppressing or further diminishing this woman’s already quite limited options to be happy, or at least to be left alone.
First, when she brings the notice she’s received about cutting down her trees—which includes an offer of compensation—to a neighborhood Palestinian leader, he reminds her that regardless of whether she chooses to fight the order, “We don’t take compensation.”
There’s no indication she had any intention of doing so anyway, but there’s an ominous quality to his remark. In effect he’s letting her know it’s not her decision, that it’s already been determined what they as Palestinians will do in such situations, and it’s irrelevant if she agrees or not. The implication is that she’ll be sorry if she sets herself against her own people by taking the money.
Refusing the compensation may well be a justified act of defiance or honor, but that’s if it is freely chosen by an individual who feels it is required by his or her values, not when it’s externally imposed like this.
Note also that the other Palestinians aren’t exactly taking up a collection to cover her loss themselves. The grove has a great emotional significance to her, but it’s also essential to her economic survival. Refusing the compensation is no trivial act they’re requiring of her.
Later, in an even more ominous incident, a friend of her dead husband lets her know that he will not allow her to “dishonor” his memory by enjoying male company in a way the community does not approve of.
So, again, it’s not her decision what widowhood requires of her, what is an appropriate amount of time to wait before entering into a new relationship, etc.; it’s up to some patriarchal buttinski who’s strongly implying that he’ll be backing up his commands with violence if need be.
The film is of fine quality throughout, and the interplay among the characters is consistently at least a little interesting, but I experienced it as quite slow much of the way. There really isn’t all that much going on for long periods of time. There’s a certain brutality to the situation, but it’s mostly not a riveting, dramatic brutality.
It’s just a sad, stoic woman, drifting through the movie looking like she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, and looking like she knows that none of this is going to end well for her.
Lemon Tree is emotionally compelling to some extent, but not a movie that grabbed me in a big way.