Roberto Rossellini, besides being Italian Neorealism’s most acclaimed film director, was also the father of a nonconformist, cosmopolitan and slightly crazy family that includes Hollywood stars such as Isabella Rossellini, another daughter who converted to Islam, and a son who has chosen to live on a desert island in Sweden.
The Rossellini family also comprises the revered maestro’s Rome-based grandson Alessandro (pictured as a child behind the camera) who is a former photographer and also a recovering drug addict. After gaining his sobriety, Alessandro felt he had not lived up to the expectations — and also the burden — of his family name. And he was pretty sure that his relatives also suffered a form of what he calls “Rossellinitis.”
Partly in an effort to improve his dwindling finances, at age 55, Alessandro Rossellini decided to visit his extended family around the globe, and force everyone to undergo a “family therapy” of sorts “under the scrutiny of an unforgiving lens,” as promotional materials put it.
His creative doc, “The Rossellinis,” launched with a splash from Venice last September, has since won Italy’s prestigious Nastro d’Argento prize and is also nominated for the country’s upcoming David di Donatello Awards.
“The Rossellinis” was produced by Rome’s B&B Film in co-production with RAI Cinema and Istituto Luce and VFS in Lettonia.
Sales company Cinephil has now closed several initial sales on the doc, which has gone to Movistar (Spain), Channel 8 (Israel), LTV (Lettonia), SVT (Sweden), YLE (Finland) and RTVSLO (Slovenia) ahead of its launch on the international fest circuit, which begins with Switzerland’s Visions du Réel and will segue to Moscow and Hot Docs in Toronto, among other upcoming events.
Alessandro Rossellini spoke to Variety about the combination of hustle and catharsis that went into getting the film made.
How did this amusing and also powerful project originate?
It originated at a time, a few years ago, when I had become clean from doing drugs, but I was broke. I have a daughter and a son; I had been forced to leave the apartment where I was living because I couldn’t afford the rent. I was living at a friend’s house. And I kept thinking: ‘What can I do to raise some quick cash?’ I had this epiphany: I thought once again about my family, about all my uncles, aunts and my father: all children of Roberto Rossellini and their peculiarities. I knew this was great material.
So I went to [then Luce-Cinecittà chief] Roberto Cicutto and I told him my idea. And he told me, ‘Forget it, you are going to get into fights with everyone in your family! The 100th anniversary of Ingrid Bergman is coming up, we have plenty of material in our archives: why don’t you do a montage?’ So I walked into the meeting with what was to become ‘The Rossellini’s’ and I walked out with [the short doc] ‘Viva Ingrid!’ which went to Venice.
Cut to many years later. Initially with help from Angelica Grizi, I started assembling some bits. What helped me bring things forward is a montage I did with footage from my grandfather’s funeral — which is at the beginning of the film — and that elicited interest from just about everyone. That was the game changer. From there on out I started being taken seriously on this project…Then roughly four years ago I met producer Raffaele Brunetti who tirelessly helped me focus on it and bring it to the screen.
So on the one hand there is this sort of ‘hustle’ aspect of ‘how can I make some money with my family name?’ But on the other I feel that it’s a very sincere and personal film.
Well, in parallel, I was undergoing my therapeutic journey, with self-help groups, 12-step programs, etc. So while I was doing the doc, I realized that personally this work could be highly therapeutic. Because finally I was confronting my family demons, and this could help set me free, and maybe change my role a little within my family and make me feel more secure about my identity.
Aside from the funeral footage there is a wealth of wonderful visual material. Was it easy to get?
Well there are his [Roberto Rossellini’s] movies, there is material from the RAI and Luce archives. But more importantly, 10 wonderful DVDs that Isabella gave me, which contain 10 years of Ingrid Bergman’s life with my grandfather. You see Isabella, Ingrid and Robertino grow up. Private and personal Bergman family material, that I was free to use. They provided a backbone and it was a huge help. It’s amazing material. Home movies where, at times, Ingrid would pass the camera to those next to her, who could be Fellini or my grandfather, or Jean Renoir.
My impression is that your family helped you a lot to get this film made, and that you served the purpose of keeping the family united.
There’s been a whole range of reactions. Some immediate, others later. Robertino was always quite happy to do it. My father is now enthusiastic, because he values success a lot, and it’s doing quite well. So he’s proud of me. For Isabella and Ingrid, it’s been more difficult because they realized I was posing some uncomfortable questions. I didn’t want to make a hagiographic movie. I wanted to touch some of the things that were left unsaid. So at first there was some resentment towards me. But the truth is that, aside from the fact that we have this family bond, we all really love each other. So I’ve been absolved.
Did making this film help you therapeutically with your ‘Rossellinitis,’ as you call it?
The cure always comes from awareness. To be able to ask those questions, and get some answers, clarified things for me. It’s obvious that all of us [Rossellinis] are very conditioned by our [family] history. Some of us are more aware of this than others.
I think I undertook a positive journey, which I don’t think is completed. But I’m sure that ‘The Rossellinis’ took away a filter from my eyes. It helped me look at the mirror and see things more clearly. It helped me confront my fears.
In a way, it’s like the the culprit in the film is Roberto Rossellini. That’s where all your problems started.
Yes, but actually there is lots of positivity that also comes from him. His way of being totally honest in saying things; the type of irony that we all have. That all comes from my grandfather. If you think of Italian comedy — which he was not directly a part of — still, it’s right there in our DNA, being Romans and Italians. This double register, which is dramatic and comic at the same time. That thing of reacting to something dramatic with a cynical joke. We all inherited that totally from him.