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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Gone, not forgotten

Director Roberto Rossellini gets a memorable gift from daughter Isabella.

July 16, 2006|Susan King

ISABELLA ROSSELLINI, the 54-year-old actress, model and cosmetics spokesperson, has been preoccupied lately with thoughts of her father, Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini, who would've been 100 this year (he died at 71 in 1977).

In a whimsical, thoughtful book called "In the Name of the Father, the Daughter and the Holy Ghosts: Remembering Roberto Rossellini," she offers finely etched personal memories of her father, her family and her mother, actress Ingrid Bergman, including the correspondence between her mother and father that led to their torrid love affair, three children and six films together.

She's also created an avant-garde short film, "My Dad Is 100 Years Old," included in the book, in which she transforms herself into her mother, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini and David O. Selznick and brings these ghosts of films past face-to-face with her father, who is represented in the film by a massive belly. In the fall, she'll be talking about her father once again at a retrospective of his work at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Daddy complex, anyone?

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In your book and short film, you talk about how contemporary audiences don't remember your father. Why haven't his films such as "Open City" and "Paisan" been as accessible as those of directors like Fellini and Vittorio De Sica?

The films are very difficult to find. My father was more influential than very popular. He has never been a box-office director. Up to 15 years ago, every [film] student would see one or two neo-realistic films at school. So there was a distribution of my father's films in 16mm.

But now these prints are very old and the films have never been transferred to DVD, so it's even harder for students who are interested in the history of film to see these films. A problem with film conservation, particularly with directors who didn't work with major studios, is that they worked with small companies that closed down and went bankrupt, so it's very difficult to trace the rights, to trace where the copies are.

We know where the material is, and now we are starting to clear all the rights.

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Your book and movie are lovely birthday presents to your father.

There is a lot of material on my dad that is very academic because he's loved by film historians, but there wasn't a book that was light and filled with illustrations. Generally, when I am interviewed about my parents I am asked in the traditional factual approach to interviews. I thought I could express more what I wanted to say if I could do my own little film. And I really was using my little film as bait for younger people who don't know my dad to understand what the intention was of his films.

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It was clever to explain your father's approach to directing by having him interact with his fellow directors.

I made different directors debate what was film to them to try in a funny way to show how directors talk about their work. They don't talk about -- at least where I grew up -- success. They don't talk in terms of careers. They think in terms of expressing themselves, telling something that is really urgent and needs to be said. That is what I wanted to express in my film. Most of the time, when you sit down and talk to press they look at films as business.

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Is your father as popular as your mother in European circles?

My mother was more visible [here] because my father's films were not that popular in the United States. He ran into censorship problems, and also the scandal when he fell in love with my mum .... My mum was known here because she worked nine years of her life here. In fact, my mum is only remembered for the films she had done in America.

In Europe, my father is as well-known as my mum. Unfortunately, the scandal and all that followed -- the gossip took so much the attention from their talent.

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The films they made together, such as "Stromboli" and "Europa '51," are dramatically challenging and intense.

Their work together was beautiful. They are considered very strong in Europe. In America, Hollywood dominates so much the culture of cinema. I don't know if it's Hollywood's fault or just a general disinterest that America has for foreign art. The United States is very isolated culturally.

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From your description, he sounded like a great dad.

He certainly was. I think like a lot of little girls have their own bond with their dad, but he was particularly tender and really liked children. He had seven of them. It was a big family.

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Did you visit him on the sets?

Yes, a lot, especially when I was a teenager -- the first jobs when I was out of school were on his sets.

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Was he as tender on the set?

It was very authoritarian in a way that directors are not anymore. The directors of that generation, they screamed and yelled on the set the way that nobody would dare today to do. It was a completely different technique. He was absolutely the dictator, the great patriarch.

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Were you able to see your father much after he and your mother divorced?

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