in Criterion Month

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Does true love really conquer all? This seems to be the cynical question at the heart of Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, the first film I’ve seen by filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a director supposedly known for his undying pessimism. Fassbinder is also known for being one of the more remarkably prolific film directors ever, as he put out an average of three films a year starting from 1970 up until his death in 1982 at the age of 36. And because of that, I don’t know that Ali was necessarily the best introduction to the guy’s work, since Fassbinder seemed to be pretty consistent in addition to his prolificness. But it’s hard to beat a timeless love story, and Ali still feels like that, unfortunately.

It’s unfortunate because Ali tells the story of a couple that can’t help but be judged by society. It starts when an elderly widow named Emmi (Brigitte Mira) just by chance one night walks into a bar that she’s always been curious about because of the Arabic music that always seems to be emanating from it. She locks eyes with a much younger Moroccan man named Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem), and after the two dance together they spend a night together, and not too soon afterward decide to get married. This marriage causes lots of turmoil amongst both Ali and Emmi’s friends, and especially Emmi’s three children, who are upset about their mother marrying this much younger foreigner.

I guess the most interesting thing to me about Ali: Fear Eats The Soul was just being able to see a movie about racism that doesn’t take place in the U.S. It’s something that has pretty much always defined us as Americans, whether we’d like to admit it or not, and unfortunately it’s not something that’s going away anytime soon. Granted, it seems this idea of nationalism is something that has been an issue in Europe recently, and certainly seemed to be an issue in 1970s Germany, considering the way people talk about Ali behind Emmi’s back. Though I can’t really be sure if this dialogue is heightened in order to be provocative, or if this was actually the way Germans talked about non-Germans at the time.

That said, I wouldn’t say this is a movie merely about racism, considering another big factor in this unlikely romance is that Emmi is at least 20 years Ali’s senior, which just adds to the unconventionality of the romance. But this is far from a Harold & Maude type situation, as there’s a fair amount of genuinely tender moments between Emmi and Ali, that are very plainly staged, but also very effective in their simplicity. And I think in the end the film wants us to believe that these two are meant to be with each other, it’s just that other people’s bullshit gets in the way.

I suppose the reason I chose Ali: Fear Eats The Soul as my first foray into Fassbinder is that 1) I have a memory of watching a clip of it in a college film history class and 2) its connection to two movies I’ve seen and enjoyed – Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. And even though Ali doesn’t take place in 50s America like those two films, it feels like the middle film in a trilogy of basically the same story, but also aren’t remakes per se. Fassbinder intentionally made Ali as an homage to All That Heaven Allows, while Haynes was inspired by both films while making Far From Heaven. I guess it’s just peculiar to see three movies that are so overtly connected by the same idea (a man and woman fall in love while being limited by societies’ structures) but are their own separate things.

A big part of this Criterion month for me has been connecting with the films of directors whom I intend to explore further in the new future, and it’s hard to say if Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of them. I still feel like I’m not entirely sure what films of his are worth seeing (Fox and His Friends maybe? Veronika Voss?), and I’m also not entirely sure if his style is a little too bleak for me. But there was still an underlying hope to Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, even if it had a pretty downer ending that I was almost certain was coming. And unfortunately, it’s a downer that I don’t have a clever ending to this review. So I’m not gonna let it eat at my soul.

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