Isabella Rossellini: Voyage round my father

Isabella Rossellini has written a film about her director father's work so that he'll never be forgotten, she tells Kaleem Aftab
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The Independent Culture

On 8 May, it will be the centenary of Roberto Rossellini's birth. It's a date that his daughter, the model, actress and author Isabella Rossellini, is determined will be remembered. To mark the occasion she has written a 17-minute film, My Dad is 100 Years Old, directed by Guy Maddin, and has produced a book entitled In the Name of the Father, the Daughter and the Holy Spirits: Remembering Roberto Rossellini.

On the surface, the Canadian avant-garde artist Maddin seems a strange choice as director. Maddin portrays human emotion by rejecting naturalism, while Roberto Rossellini made his name as the father of Italian neorealist cinema. His 1945 work Rome, Open City brought the movement to international attention and acclaim. He followed this with two other neorealist classics, Paisà and Germany Year Zero. The hallmarks of the movement were long takes that attempted to replicate life as closely as possible. The characters came from the Italian working classes and were, for the most part, played by non-actors. The Italian director believed that cinema was the most accessible of the arts, especially to the working classes. In the right circumstances, cinema could be used to promote social change.

But in choosing a director, Isabella Rossellini only saw the similarities between the two men. "Guy is very avant-garde and appeals to a very young audience," she says. "Like my father, he's also very radical. They have two very different ways of making films. So I though it was a good marriage to see Guy Maddin make a film on Roberto Rossellini written by me, a surrealist."

The film opens with Rossellini saying: "When I was young, I used to think my father was pregnant. He had such a big belly." In the picture, her father is represented throughout by a belly. It is the only part not played by Rossellini. She appears in the guise of several of her father's contemporaries, including Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Federico Fellini and Hollywood mogul David O Selznick. The narrative takes the form of a debate on the importance of the neorealist director's heritage. Selznick et al lament the tedium of neorealist cinema. At the centre of the debate, playing herself, Rossellini wonders aloud whether her father has a legacy. The film culminates with the depressing line, "Slowly people are forgetting your films."

It was this feeling that led to the creation of the film and the book. The German publisher Schirmer/Mosel commissioned the latter. Rossellini says: "It was fate that I produced these works to commemorate his memory. It's always easier to get the attention of the press if something is new. The book and the film are very light, very amusing - at least, I hope so. I've done them to accompany a tour of lectures about my father and the importance of film conservation. It's an opportunity not just to talk about my father, but also the importance of art movies in general. Films like my father's, or Fassbinder's - they always have a small audience. They've never been big box office hits, but they're essential to film history and other film-makers, so they have to be preserved."

The most powerful sequence in My Dad is 100 Years Old sees Isabella don a blond wig to play her mother Ingrid Bergman. It describes how Bergman wrote the Italian a letter after seeing Rome, Open City voicing a desire to work with him. When she eventually arrived in Italy to star in Stromboli in 1949, it did not take long before the director left his partner, the actress Anna Magnani, and Bergman left her husband and daughter Pia. As a result, Bergman was shunned by America for a decade. Rossellini's film responds head-on to criticisms that the director ruined the actress's career during this period. In it, the character of Bergman argues: "He did not ruin my career. I destroyed his."

They were married for seven years. In 1952, Isabella was born in Rome, 34 minutes ahead of her twin sister Isotta. In the movie, daughter asks mother, "Why did you divorce?" The reply: "Because Roberto was always in turmoil, he needed a hurricane. Life was a battle, films were a battle, if he didn't have a battle to fight he was bored." It's a romanticised truth. The director was invited by the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to make a documentary on India. While there, he had an affair with the screenwriter Sonali Das Gupta, the wife of his assistant.

Did Rossellini actually know much about what her parents were doing? "I knew because I always went to the set," says Rossellini. "My mother would study at home and I would see her rehearse her lines. She would work with her collaborators and the coach. So I always knew what it was to be an actor and what it was to be a director. My father edited at home. He did everything at home."

The family legacy was not always so easy for her to bear. "When I was young, I was intimidated by the idea of becoming an actress because my mother was Ingrid Bergman. The way I chose to escape that was through modelling. The success I had with modelling was very helpful. Once I had proven to myself that I was able to survive on my own, to work, and that I didn't need a husband or to rely on my father, then that gave me confidence to try other things like acting."

Her first film role was alongside her mother in Vincente Minnelli's A Matter of Time, which was released in 1976. But neither of her parents would live to see the full blossoming of her career. On 3 June 1977, news came that her father had suffered a heart attack and died in Rome. Bergman died in London in 1982 where she was receiving treatment for breast cancer. "Unfortunately my parents died when I was relatively young," says Rossellini. "I was 23 when my dad died and had just started working. When my mother died it was really just before I had my first really big success as a model. In fact, I was in New York being photographed by Richard Avedon for my first Vogue cover when I heard that my mother died in London. She knew I was going to be successful, but she didn't live to see my great successes, which I regret."

The first of these was David Lynch's Blue Velvet, in 1986. The cult classic established Rossellini as an actress in her own right. "At the time it came out, it was so incredibly controversial," recalls Rossellini. "Even today when anybody says Blue Velvet I'm in shock wondering if I'm going to get scolded for doing it."

More recently, Rossellini has been starring inan adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Feast of the Goat. She plays a lawyer who returns to the Dominican Republic to confront her father over his collaboration with the Trujillo dictatorship.

But modelling remains Rossellini's primary source of income - and now her 22-year-old daughter Elettra is making waves as a model, too. Rossellini seems content with the way her life has turned out. Nothing, though, would please her more than to see the films of her father conserved, and for them to attract a new generation of admirers.

'In the Name of the Father, the Daughter and the Holy Spirits' will be published by Haus Publishing on 8 May, priced £20