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Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (DVD)

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A miraculous retro-experiment made of equal parts tribute, mimicry, and reinvention, Todd Haynes' 2002 film Far From Heaven evokes the pristine Technicolor universe of director Douglas Sirk—specifically his 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows, a heartbreaking melodrama about the forbidden romance between a moneyed widow and her gardener. Within the strictures of the "female weepie," Heaven revealed deep, disturbing truths about how societal codes can exclude and ostracize. Haynes' picture-perfect facsimile kept the basic template intact, right down to the last autumn leaf, but his simple alterations tweak the story in a more personal direction. But his homage would not have been possible without 1974's Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, a powerful reworking of the Sirk classic by German New Wave director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who used the same sturdy premise to usher across his own social and political statements. Haynes acknowledges his debt on the 20-minute introduction to the superb two-DVD set, beautifully articulating Ali's centrality in Fassbinder's short, remarkably prolific career, and the film's bold depiction of ethnic strife within Germany at the time. Made only two years after the calamitous 1972 Olympics in Munich, where Israeli athletes were taken hostage and later killed by Palestinian terrorists after a botched rescue attempt by German authorities, Ali openly examines the racial tension between natives and Arab immigrants. In the opening scene, which is quoted nearly halfway through Far From Heaven, Fassbinder introduces a pair of absurdly mismatched dance partners: El Hedi ben Salem, a handsome Moroccan laborer in his 40s, and Brigitte Mira, a dowdy German housecleaner more than 20 years his senior. Ducking into a bar on a rainy night, Mira is shunned by the blonde bartender (Barbara Valentin) and the mostly Arab clientele, but Salem reaches out to her, in a gesture based less on attraction than defiance. Their relationship starts on a dare, but it grows on their shared loneliness and need for companionship, leading to a shotgun marriage that enrages Mira's grown children and alienates her from her neighbors and coworkers. But just when the two seem cast off as victims, Fassbinder flips the entire premise on its head, showing how their bond relies on (and feeds off of) the same cruel machinations used to pry them apart. The radical turns in Ali's second half are abrupt and disconcerting, yet they operate on the unshakable logic that no one can be fully extricated from the world around them; even goodhearted folks like Salem and Mira wind up perpetuating the conditions that exploit them. But Fassbinder doesn't betray his characters or undermine their integrity in the process, and he closes with a beautiful denouement that rhymes eloquently with the first scene while restoring his tender sympathies. The supplemental disc puts Fassbinder's achievement in fine context, with interview segments with Mira and editor Thea Eymèsz, a concise 1976 BBC documentary (Signs Of Vigorous Life) about the emerging German cinema, and a 2002 short (Shahbaz Noshir's "Angst Isst Seele Auf") that brings Mira back for an encore. But best of all is Haynes, whose thoughtful remarks about Sirk and Fassbinder's work tie his film and theirs into an enriching union.