Every family has patterns of behaviour and tropes that obsess them. Though not every family has a patriarch genius who put those in place more or less in the public eye. Alessandro Rossellini is the grandson of Roberto Rossellini. In this insightful and at times wonderfully playful documentary (a highlight of the 12th edition of DOC NYC), he embarks on a journey to confirm what he diagnoses as "Rossellinitis,” an affliction that has something to do with “fluid ethics,” a “broken moral compass,” plus some machismo, together with a tangled web concerning issues of beauty.
Alessandro Rossellini with Anne-Katrin Titze on visiting his uncle Robin on the island of Dannholmen: “I’ve heard stories from it since I was a little boy, but actually it was the very first time. I felt an immense privilege.”
The Rossellinis Alessandro visits and captures on camera are his aunts, Isabella and her twin sister Ingrid, his father Renzo, his uncle Robin, aunt Nur, and his mother Katherine Cohen.
From Rome, Alessandro Rossellini joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on The Rossellinis.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello! You’re in your car?
Alessandro Rossellini: Hi! Yes, because my plane arrived with an hour and a half delay. I’m just coming from the airport to drop off my daughter first and then going home.
AKT: In which city? Where are you?
AR: In Rome!
AKT: You made a beautiful film in which you go very very far.
AR: Thank you!
AKT: You begin on June 6th, 1977 with the funeral of your grandfather Roberto Rossellini.
AKT: This way you show us all the protagonists of your film when they were little and their reactions. You end with the Italian Vogue shoot with everyone dressed in Dolce & Gabbana, getting together again. Tell me about the structuring!
AR: The structuring is that I felt in the beginning I had to start the story when everything changed again, which was when Roberto Rossellini ended being there physically, because my idea of the film was that even though he is not there today, he still holds the strings. He still has an influence on us.
Then there’s another development which starts there, which was the relations. You know, how my relation with my relatives was and is. Then we pass into Isabella and my father and me in the graveyard, deciding where to place us once we are dead.
AKT: It’s a fascinating scene. Isabella says I want to be close to Papa! What I liked so much is that though not everybody has a genius pulling the strings from the grave, many families can identify with this chaos.
Alessandro Rossellini behind the camera with his grandfather Roberto Rossellini seated in the chair on set: “He still has an influence on us.” Photo: courtesy of B&B Film, Rai Cinema and VFS Films
AR: Yes, of course. I’m glad that you felt it. I was hoping to create some kind of empathy about the fact that this family constellation is present in everybody’s family pretty much.
AKT: Yes, why else are there so many versions of Cinderella with evil stepsisters and stepmothers?
AR: Very true.
AKT: Stepfamilies are complicated for a reason. I liked the clips you chose. From Rome Open City the scream for Francesco haunts not just your family but everybody who has ever seen the film. And especially the clip you chose from Voyage To Italy is brilliant - the faces of George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman! Did you know this would be placed at that spot to introduce your viewers to the Bergman side of the family?
AR: We kind of wrote the film in editing. We only had my questions written in the very beginning, and we started to think of where to go with each of the relatives a few weeks before going into location. The building of the film was actually done in the editing.
AKT: And you had never before been to the Swedish island where Robin lives now?
AR: Never ever. I’ve heard stories from it since I was a little boy, but actually it was the very first time. I felt an immense privilege.
AKT: An immense privilege still? Had going there been a childhood fantasy of yours?
AR: No, it wasn’t, I feel like being a Rossellini, but don’t feel a Bergman. And that’s a Bergman area. I’m glad that I went, because besides the discovery of Robin, my uncle, it was such an amazing place. It’s breathtaking that island, it’s surreal. You have to be there to really understand the power of that place.
Alessandro Rossellini with Isabella Rossellini at her farm Photo: courtesy of B&B Film, Rai Cinema and VFS Films
AKT: We get a sense when nephew and uncle are raking the seaweed at the beach. I loved how the Swedish flag he gives you returns later as a curtain in Isabella’s guest room, where she also has the Italian flag.
AKT: Do you still have that flag?
AR: Yes, I have a terrace. For Rome, it’s actually a big terrace where I have couches in the spring and summer when it doesn’t rain, and the flag is one of the blankets I put on top of the pillows. Now it’s covering the whole thing. So yes, it’s on my terrace very present.
AKT: I’m going to do an interview with Vincent Liota, the director of Objects later today, which is also screening in DOC NYC. It’s about meaningful objects that mean nothing to the world around you.
AR: Oh yes.
AKT: I also liked how you show us the visit to Ingrid Rossellini’s apartment in New York and how you start with your interactions with the doorman. I met Ingrid at an event at Columbia University when I was teaching at Columbia.
AR: She was teaching there too, yes!
AKT: Was she hesitant to be part of your film?
AR: Even more than what you see there, she always tried not to show up. I always had to make sure that she was there. She’s very very shy, as you probably know.
AKT: The pivotal moment comes when you are in the belly of the whale, so to say, at Isabella’s farm and you bring up issues that concern you, that concern her, that go very very far. Were you ever hesitant to put these in the film? It’s very brave.
The Rossellinis poster
AR: I was terrified and there were consequences. It wasn’t easy, because I wasn’t meaning that Isabella is beautiful and therefore not intelligent. The passage I wanted to explain was that she was intelligent enough to use her beauty not only to move away from the father figure, but to become herself the boss of the family. But unfortunately, she only got one part and she got very upset and offended.
AKT: I’m sorry, I’m getting nervous now. You have your hands off the wheel. You’re okay?
AR: I’m fine, yes.
AKT: Thank you so much!
AR: I have a couple of questions. You saw it in English, right? No subtitles.
AKT: Yes I did.
AR: In the elevator scene, did you get that I ask the doorman “did you know that she had …
AKT: … a Black nephew?” Yes.
AR: And he answers “I knew there was something I liked about her.” Is that clear, does it come out?
AKT: Yes. Totally. You are very good at talking and driving!
AR: Thank you. I’m a Roman. Romans do that all the time, talk and drive. Thank you!
Coming up - Alessandro Rossellini on reuniting with his mother, visiting aunt Nur in Qatar, defining Rossellinitis, Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc for Robin, taboo films that haunt the family, addressing painful questions, and how he discovered his own cinematic killer instinct.
The Rossellinis screens on Sunday, November 14 at 7:10pm - SVA Theatre; Tuesday, November 16 at 4:30pm - IFC Center - In-cinema Q&As with Alessandro Rossellini and producer Raffaele Brunetti will follow.
DOC NYC 2021 in cinemas (IFC Center - SVA Theatre - Cinépolis Chelsea) runs from November 10 through November 18 with select films screening online in the US from November 19 through November 28.