Ali: Fear Eats The Soul Movie Review

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One of Fassbinder's crown jewels, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is as powerful as any film he ever made, despite its pedestrian premise.

In '70s Germany, fiftysomething Elli (Brigitte Mira) enters an ethnic bar to get out of the rain. Here she meets a young man named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a Moroccan guest worker with broken German language skills. A strange and unlikely friendship develops, then a romance. Within a few days, they're married.

What follows is the bitter and violent reaction over their relationship. The women in her apartment gossip and shun Elli. Her family refuses to accept it. And Ali faces discrimination at every turn. Some people eventually come to terms with it, some do not. But even the stalwart Ali finally gets worn down, seeking solace in the arms of the buxom bar-owner where he and Elli originally met.

The fear in question is that of the unknown and of the unfamiliar. Every character except Elli is afraid of something -- though most are simply xenophobic and/or racist. (Fassbinder drives this home when Elli and Ali dine in an otherwise empty restaurant once favored by Hitler.) Eventually even Ali proves afraid, afraid of a stagnant life with a rather dull, older woman. We can see him wondering, though he is a man of few words, what made him marry her to begin with?

Fassbinder's camerawork here is second to none. Framing many shots in empty locations, our two leads seen in the distance through a sad and sterile doorway, we viscerally feel the loneliness within each of these characters' lives. It's clear they are not "really" in love, but are looking for some measure of escape. But the furor their romance causes drives them even deeper into an unpalatable reality. In one scene, Elli counts the weekly combined earnings of the couple, convinced that they'll soon have enough to buy a fabulous home, far away from the clamor of the city. A few scenes later, Ali has lost all his earnings in a card game. It's sad, but it's as real as it gets.

I take only issue with the abrupt ending, which I won't reveal, but it wouldn't spoil much if I did. The story kind of peters out, leaving our characters with an uncertain future and little else resolved. A few pages of rewrites would have served Fassbinder well -- and a better version of his trademark calamity finale might have made Ali his masterpiece.

Now a Criterion DVD, Ali adds a second disc of retrospective material and a booklet of new essays about the film. Interviews with Brigitte Mira, Todd Haynes, and editor Thea Eymesz discuss their influence by Fassbinder and/or collaboration with him. Most notable is Haynes's discussion of All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven, and Ali -- and how those films' themes continue to be reinvented and made more relevant than ever. A handful of other extras -- including a short film made last year, starring Mira, and called Angst isst Seele auf -- round out the supplements.

Aka Angst essen Seele auf.

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Ali: Fear Eats The Soul Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: NR, 1974

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