It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Although “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” was one of the first films by Fassbinder to make an impression outside Germany, his style was already formed and his confidence unshakable. In it, he creates an unlikely social situation and watches it, deadpan, through scenes of excruciating embarrassment and pain. An admirer of the soapy Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, he liked to add sudden, unexpected dramatic turns, and while in a lesser director they might seem like affectations, in a Fassbinder film they feel more like blows from the fly-swatters of the gods.
“Ali” is about an unlikely love that grows between a 35-ish Moroccan immigrant laborer and a 60ish cleaning lady, in a German city that seems to have left them both stranded and lonely. He is handsome and muscular. She is short and pudgy. They meet in a bar, in one of those Fassbinder scenes where silences and mutual embarrassments are stretched out until they pass through comedy and come out as weirdly constrained parody -- a cross between TV soap opera and the paintings of Edward Hopper.
Fassbinder borrows from Sirk the technique of framing shots so stringently that the characters seem fenced in, limited in the ways they can move. He’ll lock Emmi (Brigitte Mira) in the foreground and Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem) in the background in such a way that neither could move without leaving the frame, and make you aware of that: He’s saying visually that they are locked into the same space, without choices. They remain motionless in his carefully composed visual settings while we absorb their dilemma and (gradually) the fact that he’s calling attention to it. In the quietest of ways, Fassbinder is breaking his contract with the audience, which expects plausible fiction. He nudges us to get outside the movie and look at it as absurd, as black humor, as comment on these people so hopelessly trapped in their dreary surroundings and by their fates.
Is he sometimes being deliberately funny? I’m sure of it. His style and tone are so adamant that audiences sometimes just sit in silence, uncertain of the right response. With some films, that indicates the director’s loss of control over tone. With Fassbinder, it seems to be the response he wants: confusion and curiosity in the face of a new cinematic language that won’t use clichés, except to draw them out beyond plausibility.