Friday, January 3, 2014

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Sometimes there is a rare, sublime beauty to be found in the simplest of things. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974) is one such example of a motion picture that is deceivingly simple. It is a film that despite its seemingly ordinary exterior makes a strong emotional connect with the viewer, almost effortlessly! It is not wrong to use the word 'effortlessly' either, in this context, for believe it or not, this extraordinary work of cinema was completed in a span of 15 days on a meager budget and it was meant to fill the time between two of the filmmaker’s bigger budget productions, Martha and Effi Briest!

A portly old cleaning woman Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and a tall, dark, handsome Moroccan immigrant auto mechanic Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), almost 20 years younger than her form an unusual and instant bond one rainy night in a bar. One thing leads to another and the two eventually get married, leaving a whole community of prejudiced German neighbours and co-workers of Emmi seething in disgust at this forbidden relationship. How the couple cope with the increasing hostility around them, is the crux of Fassbinder's simple but powerful story.

Do not be fooled by the plot summary. It may sound far too basic, perhaps even a regular, done-to-death melodramatic romance, but it is far from all that. It has the special touch of Fassbinder for one. The mise-en-scène drips quality in every frame. The storytelling is crisp and scenes are structured in a manner as to get a strong point across to the audience. The very first scene, for instance, begins on an unsettling note, as Emmi enters a bar with a majority of foreigners/Arabs. As they stand transfixed, giving Emmi a deadpan stare, Emmi who is standing at a distance, looks back in silence, as an Arab tune plays in the background. This makes for a fantastic opening sequence that practically yells out the main theme of the film; that of an inequality among humans.

Ali and Emmi belong to vastly different backgrounds but both are lonely individuals, somewhat tortured within, owing to the lives they lead. Emmi is a cleaning lady and every time she tells someone that, they look down upon her! She has children who don't see her often, all married and leading their respective lives. Ali on the other hand, seems to have come to terms with his position in society . That isn't even his real name, by the way; his actual name is El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha and Ali is a generalized name given to him, perhaps because of his dark-skinned Arab ethnicity! 

He lives in a single room with five other Arab buddies and hence the Germans refer to them as the swine and their habitats as pigsties! Some ignorant folk even doubt if they wash themselves regularly! Ali is used to this kind of treatment and is rather blunt about his status in society, as he declares in his broken German language "German master, Arab dog"! Although it is he that reminds Emmi that "Fear eats the soul", somewhere his own fear of being a foreigner is eating him up from inside as we later learn.

The racial bigotry reaches shocking proportions post the marriage of these two tormented characters as Emmi's children shamelessly express their disapproval for Ali in front of him. Co-workers refuse to include Emmi with them, neighbours start avoiding her, staff at restaurants stay aloof and reluctantly attend to them when they enter to dine, and the friendly neighbourhood grocer who has had Emmi as a regular customer, refuses to serve the couple anymore! The loneliness of these characters and the inevitable distance between them and these prejudiced individuals is portrayed through shots deliberately designed for such a purpose. 

Often there are long shots, showing either Emmi or Ali or both together, distant from the viewer as if the viewer is made to feel like one such biased individual or as a mute spectator to the sad state Emmi has landed herself into, merely for falling in love and getting married to the only man who didn't look down upon her when she revealed her profession to him and who offered her a much needed companionship. There are also some deliberate shots in which we see either Emmi or Ali from a distance through a door, again, stressing on the alienation of these characters. At times, mostly Emmi is seen from behind bars of windows or staircases, reflecting her emotional imprisonment.

The couple's tough journey to make it through their marriage that draws the ire of almost everyone around them, may seem soap-operatic and exaggerated but it makes for a soul-stirring and mature cinematic experience, confident in its approach. For one, Fassbinder keeps it from falling prey to melodramatic trappings and keeps it restrained, not in the depiction of events, but in the character reactions and handling of the extreme situations the couple are subjected to. 

Secondly, the film's themes reflect personal histories of some actors and Fassbinder himself, having grown up in an atmosphere of immigrant prejudice. Moreover, the actor playing Ali, El Hedi ben Salem was Fassbinder's gay lover at the time. The extreme behavior of discrimination and hypocrisy portrayed in the film might very well be true to reality and far from hyperbole then.

The story takes some surprising and some not so surprising turns as the tide appears to turn, both in the couple's relationship and the attitude of the society toward them. The events are entirely convincing and lead to some thought-provoking moments towards the third act. Some finer examples are how Ali misses the food native to him, and turns to the busty bartender Barbara (Barbara Valentin) for the same and how Emmi unwittingly participates in a mob behavior that actually echoes what she's undergone. 

The best moments of the film are complemented with pitch perfect performances from the two leads. While El Hedi ben Salem aptly displays the deadpan sturdiness of a Moroccan that struggles with the German language, Brigitte Mira charms with her affectionate turn as a woman aware of her old age and who only yearns for comforting companionship more than anything else. Watch out also for Fassbinder himself as the cranky son-in-law of Emmi in an explosive little cameo.

"Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" with its simplicity and astonishing production history is a testament to how spontaneous a filmmaker Fassbinder was. He delivers a poignant and effective masterwork of cinema and at the same time makes his feat seem like a walk in the park!

Score: 10/10