High Authenticity: Roberto Rossellini’s La Paura (1954) – Blu-ray review
Neo-realist Hitchcock? Rossellini puts his movie-star missus into a psychological thriller where any narrative excitement is displaced by a sadder, more existential pain
(Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
What is Italian neo-realism, anyway? By the time you watch La Paura (a thriller starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman harried by a blackmailer) you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching something by Hitchcock rather than a film by the guy who made Rome Open City.
Then again, bear in mind that the ‘neo-realism’ tag was never a Dogme-style movement and Rossellini had long proven himself to be a diverse talent. Even in supposed docu-dramas Rossellini found room for action-movie verve and unusual narrative structures. By the 1950s, in his collaborations with wife Bergman, he was mixing-and-matching classical techniques with freeform improvisation.
So while La Paura is far more conventional than Stromboli or particularly Journey To Italy, the unusual degree of emphasis on the emotional fall-out of its plot link the story to the earlier films. Rossellini isn’t interested in his film’s twists; prefiguring Vertigo, he gives it away relatively early, ensuring that the focus is on Bergman and how she will react.
Long takes give the actress nowhere to hide from her fear, or angst (the title has been translated both ways) while the final act is a persistent, uncomfortably voyeuristic portrait of her character at wit’s end. The realism lies in the desire to strip back the artifice of the performance, and here Rossellini does so using a star actress and textured chiaroscuro lighting. It’s a film noir with the gloves off.
Let’s not forget: the director and star were married. Even if you don’t know the scandalous biography, it’s obvious from the films that things were strained, since Rossellini insists on putting Bergman in flawed marriages that she cannot escape. In Stromboli and Journey To Italy, this is alleviated by the hope of a transcendent moment that might make sense of her turmoil; La Paura is altogether more fatalistic.
It’s also worth bearing in mind the film’s setting in Germany and its central theme of forgiveness. This isn’t that long since the war – whose bleak aftermath Rossellini had documented in Germany Year Zero – and this is a portrait of a society trying to pull itself back together, but beset by existential trauma.
The incidental details pose difficult questions. Bergman runs a factory (it is hinted she took on that role when her husband was a PoW) engaged in finding cures for diseases; was that always its function? The reconstruction is taking place on suspect moral foundations, be it Irene’s affair or her equally dishonest, ill-mannered children, tellingly more interesting in playing with rifles than dolls. If the story is slight, the unusual emphasis of Rossellini in the world it takes place in gives the film darker resonances.