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Ali: Fear Eats the Soul: The Criterion Collection

Lurking amidst 2002's many rapturous notices for Todd Haynes' overt homage to Douglas Sirk Far From Heaven were the gripes of a few critics taking their peers to task for apparently forgetting that it had all been done before. But it's not as if there were any slight intended to the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, his seminal 1974 variation on All That Heaven Allows. It's just that both films are so unique to each artist that to bring Fassbinder's work into the mix would've been to muddy the ecstatic communion between Haynes and Sirk. Now, however, Criterion is reintroducing the earlier tribute to modern day audiences with a beautifully packaged two-disc set that finds the film impressive not as a stylistic coup of a master filmmaker hitting full stride, but for the way in which the Sirk influence seemed to help this prolific young filmmaker find his voice, and, in turn, offered up a method through which he could tell his unvarnished tales without artlessly and pessimistically rubbing one's nose in the ugliness of life. The title character (played by El Hedi ben Salem) is a thirty-ish Moroccan immigrant, recently moved to Munch, who unexpectedly falls in love with a widowed 60-year-old cleaning lady named Emmi (Brigitte Mira) who happens to curiously stroll into his local neighborhood bar one night. What's initially notable, and wholly welcome, about Fassbinder's reworking is that he's not only widened the age gap between the lovers, but cleaved to his naturalistic tendencies by casting the dowdy and ample Mira in the Jane Wyman role. Emmi is no aging knock-out; she's weathered life. Tiring of the purely sexual comfort given by the tavern's trollops, it's not at all far-fetched to believe that Ali would happily opt for Emmi's genuine compassion and understanding. The initial courtship between the two is a joy to watch; at first, Ali offers to walk Emmi home in the rain, which then leads to a glass or two of brandy, then an invitation to sleep in the guest bedroom, until, finally, Ali enters Emmi's bedroom and they spend the night together. Whereas Ali simply wants to be treated as a human being, the lonely Emmi is desperately needful of companionship. Though there are hints of disapproval from her co-workers in the building, Emmi and Ali, blissfully unafraid of the consequences, get married (in part to circumnavigate a looming lease issue with the landlord). That's when the old bugaboo of racism, exacerbated in particular by the then-recent Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, rears its ugly head, and life quickly becomes unbearable for the good hearted couple. Fassbinder trots out all of the expected complications: Emmi's children flip out (in an amusing nod to the Sirk original, one of Emmi's sons kicks in the television tube), her co-workers gang up on her, and the local grocer toys with Ali's unsure German to deny him a container of margarine. These are the elements that presage Haynes' variation, but Fassbinder makes Ali a less saintly character than Dennis Haysbert was in the newer version. As the couple slowly wins the acceptance of the community, Ali becomes withdrawn and depressed because with acceptance comes assimilation. Over something as seemingly trivial as Emmi's refusal to cook couscous, Ali begins to step out with the younger barkeep, who, along with fulfilling his sexual needs, won't deny him his favorite dish. This sets the film on its path toward a much dourer conclusion than evinced by its cinematic cousins, but Fassbinder is astute and compassionate enough to see a small measure of deliverance in the tragedy. Criterion presents Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in a terrific full-screen transfer (1.33:1) with monaural sound. Aside from the theatrical trailer, the extras are all on the second disc and include a recent short film inspired by Fassbinder titled "Angst isst Seele auf" (12 min.), interviews with actress Mira (25 min.), editor Thea Eymesz (22 min.), and fellow Sirk enthusiast Todd Haynes (23 min.). Rounding out the disc is an episode of the BBC's Signs of Vigorous Life dedicated to "New German Cinema" and the excerpt from The American Soldier featuring Margarethe von Trotta's monologue that told the first version of Emmi and Ali's story. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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