The more films I watch, the more I find myself responding to stories which are as direct and unadorned as possible. Aki Kaurismaki, as does Takeshi Kitano, come to mind. Kitano's movies contain absolutely nothing that does not need to be there, and what needs to be there is dictated by his own very unique sensibility. The same sort of spareness and directness is at the heart of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which numbers among Rainer Fassbinder's very best movies all the more because it is so uncluttered — and for that reason so hard to rationalize away.
Ali takes the rough form, but not quite the content, of a melodrama. What makes it work is its simple tone and its directness of spirit, and also its immensely subtle understanding of character. Because the film is so simple and direct on the surface, some people miss the way the movie is really operating — they hear only the gears turning in the plot and miss the real music.
There is Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira), a rumpled, sixtyish woman who works as a cleaner somewhere in Germany. She goes into a bar one night that caters mostly to "guest workers," foreigners that live and work in Germany, presumably to get out of the rain. The barmaid, a blowzy blonde with a beehive hairdo, makes unsubtle suggestions to one of the other patrons that maybe she'd like to dance. He walks over to her, offers, and she takes him up on it.
He is Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a Moroccan who works as a garage mechanic, but who dresses well and holds himself with a certain degree of dignity. He is polite and gentle to her, two things she is not used to — certainly not from someone like this this tall, dark-skinned, imposing fellow. "Always working, always drinking," is how he describes himself, and there is something in his simple words that resonates in her. She lost her husband decades ago and has been eking out a living ever since, and to have anyone else even remotely interested in her is a thunderbolt. And much to her surprise as much as his, she takes him back to her p lace and offers him a place to sleep for the night, since he has such a long way home and it is, after all, raining.
Fassbinder sets up the film in such a way that it is clear how they are, in a sense, doomed to be alone together. The shots are set up so that Ali, or Emmi, or the two of them together are constantly isolated, with everyone else in a reaction shot or at the far end of the room. One of the very first shots of the film is the whole populace of the bar looking over at Emmi with something approaching disdain, or maybe morbid curiosity. Later in the film, when Ali and Emmi hold hands in an outdoor restaurant, everyone else crowds to one side and stares off at them. But together, they have a strength that they do not have alone, and they can endure.
Emmi finds herself defending Ali and the rest of his kind to her co-workers, women her age who speak with equal parts resentment and condescension about the "guest workers." Emmi hardly sees herself as being any different from them — she's old and undesirable (there's a remarkable shot where she appraises herself in the mirror after sleeping with Ali for the first time), and she knows it. Ali, conversely, is a land where he barely knows the language and finds himself longing for the simplest things. Emmi fills that void in his life, but Fassbinder quite intelligently shows us that she cannot cover all the bases without some strain.
If they were shunned singly, now they are shunned together. The shopkeeper across the street deliberately misleads Ali — and we can see that Ali knows he's being misled, but that his inadequacy with German doesn't allow him to say how. A waiter in a restaurant condescends to both of them. Emmi's family responds with disgust and apprehension to the announcement that she and Ali are now married. In one of the best scenes, her son stands up and smashes her TV set after receiving the news, but later — like almost everyone else — does an about-face because it's harder to reject her completely. Likewise, the shopkeeper is soon clamoring to get their business back — not out of remorse, as the shopkeeper's wife would seem to indicate, but because he can't afford to lose the business to the supermarket up the way.
What makes the film most interesting is how unstudied and unpretentious it is. Fassbinder shoots in sad, lonely apartments and plain-looking rooms, where the occasional spot of color stands out on the film blindingly (like Ali's orange shirt). He also makes use of El Hedi ben Salem, his then-lover, who was not a professional actor and indeed looks awkward and stiff on camera — but that actually contributes to the general feeling of the role, since Ali himself is uncomfortable and awkward in this world. It's been said that everyone plays one role best — themselves — and when playing Ali he simply seems to be playing himself, for the better.
Emmi and Ali wind up drifting apart, but again the genius of the film is in the details. Ali heads back to the apartment of the barmaid, although he is too exhausted and homesick to ask for sex. What he really wants is couscous, which Emmi doesn't like and won't cook for him. The movie seems to suggest that they can only get so close, no matter how great their mutual need. Something will always pull them back apart. In the same way, Emmi finds herself coming back into favor with her co-workers, and almos t unthinkingly conspiring with them to snub a guest-worker in their own midst. Whatever she has learned from Ali about her life has not fed back into other parts of it — or maybe she doesn't want it to.
The significance of the title only comes out by degrees. Ali tells Emmi that it is a common phrase in Arabic, and the circumstances around them conspire to prove how true it is. They are surrounded by people who fear their common bond, since it gives them a a strength and a validation they did not have before. There is also the uncertainty of the future — something underscored by the movie's rather sudden ending, where Emmi has to make a decision about how much she really is going to devote to this man, for whatever life she has left.
The unspoken reference point for the film is Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, with its vaguely parallel plotting. Sirk's weepy, woman-oriented melodramas have since come back into vogue as being far more prescient than originally seemed, and Fassbinder himself was deeply moved after watching a retrospective of the man's work — so much so that he abandoned his earlier, more Brechtian "art-school" style in favor of a more direct storyteller's approach. He shot Ali in a mere two weeks, in borrowed locations and with little money, and that economy of method fed directly into the movie's economy of storytelling. There are few other movies this simple on the surface that can suggest so many unspoken things about its characters.
Note: When purchasing the film, Amazon noted that it was an extremely popular seller in South Korea. That makes a curious amount of sense, given how many similarly spare and direct dramas of personal struggle in a confining society I've seen coming from that country's cinema as of late.