The Rossellinis


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Rossellinis
"Insightful and at times wonderfully playful."

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. The Rossellinis Alessandro visits and captures on camera are his aunts, Isabella Rossellini and her twin sister Ingrid Rossellini, his father Renzo Rossellini, his uncle Robin Rossellini, aunt Nur Rossellini and his mother Katherine Cohen.

He opens with Roberto Rossellini’s funeral on June 6, 1977, where we get a glimpse of the protagonists of this documentary. The voiceover by the grandson helps to keep track of the groundbreaking, cinema changing director’s wives and seven children, with “the illegitimate ones unknown.” This is a danger zone, and more than once does Alessandro venture into swamps where no one wants to tread.

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There is the most famous clip from Rome Open City (1945) with its haunting scream for “Francesco,” and a fantastic moment from Voyage To Italy (1954) with George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman, wife and mother to the first three Rossellinis Alessandro is going to visit. Uncle Robertino, known as Robin, defined by his nephew as international playboy and recluse wrapped in one, lives on Danholmen Island off the Swedish coast. Realm of the “golden Bergmans,” this is the first time he steps into this mythical place which was closed to him during his childhood.

In Alessandro’s insightful and at times wonderfully playful documentary, co-written with Andrea Paolo Massara and Davis Simanis Jr. (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 self-esteem, “fluid ethics,” a “broken moral compass,” plus some machismo, together with a tangled web concerning issues of beauty.

Ingrid, who chose an academic career, is the next one visited in New York. Alessandro banters with the doorman of her building if he knew that she had a Black nephew, and Ingrid speaks about her shyness, people’s cruelty, Isabella’s beauty, and we learn how upset she was about the film her twin sister made together with Guy Maddin for the centenary of their father’s birth. Having Rome Open City projected on the big belly of a man, a reference to Roberto’s joy in play-acting being sow to his many suckling children, tore the family apart for a while.

Skin colour plays no small part in this family’s narrative. Alessandro’s mother Katherine Cohen, whom we meet later in a nursing home in New York City, was a dancer in Paris when she met Renzo, Roberto Rossellini’s oldest son; they never married and Alessandro grew up with grandma Marcella, Roberto’s wife before Ingrid Bergman. His last wife Sonali Senroy DasGupta, was from India and their daughter Nur will be visited in Doha, Qatar later on in the documentary.

Back on the island in Sweden, Robin talks about being traumatized as a child when he was taken “to see mom burned alive” (that is, of course, for Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc.) They rake seaweed on the beach together and the nephew asks us as much as himself if we have ever seen “a more beautiful dining room?” (It is pretty spectacular, rivaled only by the one constructed in Wellfleet, Massachusetts by Marcel Breuer seen in James Crump’s Breuer’s Bohemia).

A trip to Isabella’s farm on Long Island does not have her animals as the focus. Instead, Alessandro steps boldly into deeply uncomfortable territory of money and shame and privilege. Charlotte Gainsbourg makes it clear in Jane By Charlotte, the documentary about her mother Jane Birkin, how sometimes the camera is needed to overcome barriers. Far from being an obstacle, it allows the family to approach truths that would otherwise escape notice.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2021
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A documentary recounting the lives of Roberto Rossellini's children from the perspective of Alessandro Rossellini, the first grandson of the director.

Director: Alessandro Rossellini

Writer: Andrea Paolo Massara, Alessandro Rossellini, Davis Simanis Jr.

Starring: Alessandro Rossellini, Isabella Rossellini, Ingrid Rossellini, Robin Rossellini, Renzo Rossellini, Nur Rossellini, Katherine Cohen, Elettra Wiedemann, Caleb Lane

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Latvia, Italy

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