Emmi, a 60 year old widowed cleaner decides to enter a bar that is playing Arabic music to shield from the rain. She sits at a table on her own far from the regulars who are at the other side of the bar. They dare one of their entourage, Ali to go and ask her to dance. Whilst they think he will refuse instead he calls their bluff and complies.
With this Emmi and Ali get to know each other and this develops into a relationship. But with this the couple come face to face with societal prejudices regarding inter-racial relationships and their age gap.
Masterfully directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ali- Fear Eats The Soul shows how the love between Ali and Emmi is met with others hatred, ignorance and bigotries.
The couple are quickly ostracised and find themselves all alone which is depicted by the couple being depicted in long shots in many of the film’s scenes. One such is the heartbreaking scene in which they both sit in the rain outside a restaurant where there are no other diners. The couple sitting at the middle table of a huge and empty seating area emphasises their ostracised status within the restaurant and society in general. In fact the only others there are the restaurant’s staff who have decided to stand outside openly gawping at the couple in wide eyed disbelief that they would dare to be in a loving relationship whilst transgressing so many norms of what is acceptable and what isn’t.
The scope of these extreme long shots which emphasise their isolation and separation is huge with Emmi and Ali being shown to be tiny within them. This emphasises just how cut off from everyone else they are whether that be the people around them or society as a whole. Another example is when they go to a restaurant just after they get married. The couple even seemingly break the fourth wall and look into the camera as they are shown to be the only figures in the frame and dwarfed by how far away the camera is and how small their figures are in the frame. Fassbinder holds this shot for seconds but it feels like hours with the audience being made to purposely feel a little uncomfortable at having the characters dwarfed in their surroundings whilst they look us in the eye.
Emmi is shown to be shunned by her family who took her for granted anyway and then by her work colleagues, her neighbours and even the owner of the small convenience store she used close to her apartment.
The issue of their relationship being built on love but without sex also poses a problem within the film with Ali going to the female owner of the bar for almost functional sexual fulfilment which Emmi finds out about. Again, we get another shot to depict Ali’s loneliness and isolation, this time in another long shot but this time on his own sat on the bar owner’s bed, completely alone and without Emmi just as she was alone when sat at the table in the bar at which they met.
The film shows that Emmi’s family and friends only start to speak to her again and seemingly accept her new marriage when they need something- her babysitting duties when it comes to her son who had previously kicked in the screen of her TV on hearing the news of her marriage (a reference to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows which was an inspiration for this film), her storage space when a neighbours’s son needs to store his belongings in a hurry, her custom and hence money when she is accepted again by the owner of the local shop.
The film also explores how powerful the need to fit in with societal norms really is with Emmi’s narrow minded friends deciding to come to her apartment to meet Ali but which then leads to a scene in which Ali storms out to leave after being objectified by the women as a powerful, exotic object of their lust resplendent with big muscles. They express surprise when they find out that he even washes everyday just like any other civilised human being. Ali feels dehumanised by this and rightly leaves hastily. Even when he leaves, Emmi voices the opinion that it is down to his ‘foreigner mentality’ and ‘others’ him even further.
Emmi is received back into her gang of co-workers and by doing so ostracises a new woman who has joined her team just because she is an immigrant just like Ali. Toxic behaviour is evidently highly contagious.
During the film, Emmi goes to Ali’s workplace to see him after he had left. She is then humiliated because of her age by his workmates who he laughs along with whilst pretending not to know who Emmi is. The pull of conformity and not wanting to be seen as ‘other’ or ‘different’ is a powerful one and affects both Ali and Emmi in different circumstances.
But nothing brings people together quicker than when adversity strikes and puts everything else into it’s true perspective. And that’s all I’m saying as I don’t want to ruin the conclusion of this extraordinary film.
There are amazing performances all round but especially from Brigitte Mira as Emmi and the unbearably handsome El Hedi ben Salem as Ali. There’s even an uncredited cameo by Fassbinder himself as Emmi’s vile son in law.
Fassbinder’s film is so well observed that it aches with the love between the two lead characters but also with the hatred and wilful lack of understanding from others that makes it so poignant and heartbreaking.
We also get a peek into the beauty of 70’s Germany which acts as a fantastic backdrop to this extraordinary film.
Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is a masterpiece. It is so poignant that if it doesn’t pluck at your heartstrings and stir your soul then you possibly don’t possess either. It will stay with you long after the film has finished.
Ali-Fear Eats The Soul is beautiful and brutal and just as relevant today as it’s ever been. Every now and again I watch a film that makes me think that my life is better for having seen it. Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is one such film.
***** out of *****