Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: James Gray’s upcoming The Immigrant has us thinking about the immigrant experience and films that explore it.
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974)
The immigrant experience is marked by intolerance and agony in Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 masterpiece about the unlikely May-December romance between older widow Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and younger Moroccan man Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem). The pair meet when Emmi takes refuge in an Arab bar and is asked by Ali—at the urging of a younger floozy who thinks it’ll be funny—to dance. A drink, a walk home, and a night spent together later, and the two are in love, finding in each other an open-minded acceptance that is otherwise all-too-rare in their urban Munich environs. From Emmi’s nosy neighbors to her gossipy cleaning-lady co-workers to the shop owner with whom she’s been doing business for 20 years, 1970s Germany is a place still infested with Nazi-era prejudice against The Other. Thus, it’s little surprise (if still devastating) when, after getting married, Emmi and Ali are shunned by Emmi’s racist children (and son-in-law, played by Fassbinder), and looked upon with hateful jealousy by the German women who not-so-secretly covet the muscular man.
Fassbinder’s melodrama tackles the ugliness faced by its protagonists with a bracing narrative bluntness that’s amplified by his austere aesthetics, with limited camera movements and diegetic sound allowing silence and empty spaces to speak to the pair’s pain and sorrow. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul conveys volumes through its expert framing, with the director’s compositions always underscoring Emmi and Ali’s emotional states—and relationship to each other—through shots of the couple constricted by doorways and windows. One of Fassbinder’s most poignant works, the film is a portrait of both individual and joint perseverance that cuts straight to the core of bigotry’s ugliness, the difficulties of cultural assimilation, and the struggle to maintain identity, morality, and love in the face of social alienation.
Availability: Ali: Fear Eats The Soul is available on Criterion DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and to stream on Hulu Plus.