Roberto Rossellini’s stunning La paura, which updates Stefan Zweig’s 1920 novella Angst, finds one kind of jealousy masquerading as another. Research scientist Albert Wagner knows that Irene, his wife, has been having an affair with Erich Baumann because Baumann’s previous girlfriend, Johanna Schultze, striking out at the woman who replaced her, has told him this. Wagner thus impresses Schultze into a scheme whereby she torments Irene by blackmailing her for increasing sums of money, which Irene at first pays, hoping to keep her husband from finding out. Eventually Irene discovers her husband’s plot against her and chooses suicide as a course of action rather than face him. Meanwhile, Wagner is himself consumed by guilt for what he has done, the deepest motive for which perhaps only we are privy to: Irene’s business success with the research plant while Albert was a wartime prisoner. The villain here is the Second World War, whose shadows warp and riddle the Wagners’ lives; in a great shot recalling silent German cinema’s expressionism, Irene’s shadow looms enormously as, at night, she retreats to the laboratory in the abandoned plant in order to kill herself with her husband’s experimental vaccine for counteracting paralysis, symbolically, the plague of the war’s hangover, its residual moral numbing. In a sense, through his fiendish scheme, Wagner has indeed been “experimenting” on his wife.
Ingrid Bergman gives a phenomenal performance, among her three or four greatest, as Irene. At first, we may worry that the film abounds with too many fleeting allusions to other Bergman films, among them, Gaslight, Notorious and Rossellini’s Europa ’51, in which she played another Irene; but Irene Wagner emerges with especial force and clarity as a completely realized characterization, and with a lyrical beauty, attuned to Irene’s increasing vulnerability, that is heartrending.
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