“Happiness is not always fun.”
The words float over an image of a puddle potholed into the pavement of a busy road, the opening shot of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s exquisite Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, one of cinema’s great love stories and a film whose plea for tolerance remains unfortunately relevant.
Emmi, a woman of 60 or so, enters a bar seeking sanctuary from an evening storm. The clients are few, and mostly Arab. One of them, a man about two decades Emmi’s junior, is goaded by a young woman to ask Emmi to dance; he does, and they do.
Their dance is awkward, but tender. They talk; he is Moroccan and is known as Ali, a stereotypical moniker assigned to immigrants of his ethnicity, but his real name, he explains, is “much longer.” He walks her home. The rain refuses to relent; Emmi invites Ali up to her flat for coffee and brandy and to wait out the storm.
The presence of Emmi (frequent Fassbinder collaborator Brigitte Mira, vulnerable but unwavering) with a “foreigner” piques snooping and gossip from her neighbors. Kif-kif, says Ali; a verbal shrug.
Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, a soulful nonprofessional actor and, for a time, Fassbinder’s lover) explains that he works as a mechanic and shares a small room with five other men. “That’s inhuman,” Emmi gasps. “Arabs not human in Germany,” Ali replies, leaving modern viewers to mutter, “Or in a Republican America.”
The rain continues; Ali is far from home. Elli, long since widowed, her children grown, gone and disinterested in her, insists he sleep over. She prepares the spare bedroom. They end up in her bed.
In the morning, they share breakfast and go their separate ways. That night, Elli stops by the bar; Ali is not there. He awaits Elli outside her apartment.
Elli suggests half-jokingly that she and Ali should marry. Ali does not laugh. They wed.
Then Elli hears what Ali, kif-kif, tunes out (or at least seems to): “pigs,” “trash,” “rapists,” “you know what they’re like, bombs and all that.” And that’s just from her family and friends.
Yet Elli and Ali remain steadfast. Though their love is eventually tested.
Brisk, intimate and resonant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul neither sends the heart soaring nor tramples it out of spite; the film, like love, is universal and human, and it concludes on a perfectly imperfect moment in Elli’s and Ali’s life together.
“Happiness is not always fun.” But we are all entitled to its pursuit.