The wildly prolific German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid homage to his cinematic hero Douglas Sirk with this update of that filmmaker's All That Heaven Allows (1955). A lonely widow (Brigitte Mira) meets a much younger Arab worker (El Hedi ben Salem) in a bar during a rainstorm. They fall in love, to their own surprise-and to the outright shock of their families, colleagues, and drinking buddies. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder expertly wields the emotional power of classic Hollywood melodrama to expose the racial tensions underlying contemporary German culture.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's quietly powerful film is a sort-of remake of Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows," a film and director greatly admired by Fassbinder, but it has a sharper edge than Sirk's film. In "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul," the couple fighting a society's prejudice and resentment of their unconventional love must fight some of their own prejudices as well. In Sirk's film, the only thing imposing on the complete happiness of Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson was the busy-body ostracism of family and friends who didn't approve of the relationship between a rich society widow and her working-class gardener. In "Ali," Fassbinder suggests that happiness isn't something that's gained from the approval of others, but rather is the responsibility of the individuals involved. One of the things I liked best about this film is that as the German society gets used to the unconventional romance and begins to accept our two protagonists, the couple themselves begin to struggle to maintain a grip on the happiness they thought would be their's by right.
Fassbinder's unconventional couple are a frumpy German widow and a Moroccan immigrant 10-15 years younger than her. I gather from this film that Moroccans (or Arabs in general) were about as hated and feared in Germany at the time of this film's release as blacks were in America during the worst of the civil rights movement. So you can imagine how the couple's initial courting and subsequent marriage is handled by their neighbors, friends and family. Fassbinder himself was gay, and many suggest that the film is an allegory for the way homosexuals were persecuted. Fassbinder's private life undoubtedly informed his film, but the movie is really more universal than that. It really applies to anyone who's ever suffered the judgement of a group of people over something that didn't even affect those people, and really, who can honestly say that they've never been subjected to that?
Fassbinder directs in a low-key, unfussy style, yet he creates images and scenes that linger in the head long after the film is over. It's a lovely film, very well acted, scripted and directed. It's not exactly sad, because it argues that societies are able eventually to adapt to new things and accept things they originally rejected. But it's not exactly happy either, because it suggests that relationships don't necessarily become easier just because external obstacles are removed.
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