Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin
Plot: An almost accidental romance is kindled between a German woman in her mid-sixties and a Moroccan migrant worker around twenty-five years younger. They abruptly decide to marry, appalling everyone around them.
Genre: Drama / Romance
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Rating: M18 for nudity.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of New German Cinema in the late 1960s, was probably one of the most insanely productive filmmakers of his time, and together with Werner Herzog (Aguirre: Wrath of God, 1972; Fitzcarraldo, 1982), Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, 1987) and among a few others, brought a newfound respect and artistic credibility to German cinema.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is sort of a departure from Fassbinder's provocative, often political works, but this doesn't mean it is apolitical. In fact, by leveraging on the simple premise of an interracial romance between an old, lonely German woman and a young Moroccan migrant worker in a xenophobic German society, the film succinctly brings to the table a host of socio-cultural themes that lend themselves to political interpretations.
Starring Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem as the couple Emmi and Ali respectively, Fassbinder's film sees them get together after a brief encounter in a Moroccan pub. It's a case of an accidental romance that inexplicably turns into a marriage very soon after.
The key performance here is Mira's, who turns in a psychologically vulnerable yet mentally resolute display that imbues her character with a duality that tells us more about her feelings and attitudes, which often may not be the same.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is as much about discrimination, xenophobia and ethnic tensions as it is about women issues. There is a tendency to overlook this in favour of a cross-cultural perspective that allows us to draw parallels to the fault lines that exist in societies with migrant workers and displeased locals, especially if it is symptomatic of your country, like mine (Singapore) for example.
This is where Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, 1955) comes in and why Fassbinder's work here also achieves a thematic duality that makes it such an important piece of cinema history. By adopting the Sirkian touch of melodrama and a strong, thinking woman character, Fassbinder expertly brings together the Woman and the Other (the migrant worker) and draws out issues that would otherwise be invisible if only a singular approach was used. For example, in one particular scene where Emma's old friends 'inspect' and admire the toned and muscular body of Ali, exoticizing (and possibly eroticizing) the Other.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul has some stirring images of 1970s Germany, particularly the locale and the automobiles, but what is most striking visually is Fassbinder's use of the gaze. Often we see characters standing or sitting still and directing their lines of sight at someone, as if time has stopped, when in fact, it temporally prolongs a kind of racialized gaze, giving the film a sense of being observed, of being judged. This is one of Fassbinder's most accessible works, and it comes with my strong recommendation.
Verdict: This Sirkian-influenced interracial romance-drama by Fassbinder is emotionally resonant and unexpectedly timely in today’s cross-cultural yet xenophobic societies.
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