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The Many Faces of Isabella Rossellini

Photo by Georges Biard
The daughter of two cinema icons, she’s led an extraordinary life as a model, actress, voice-over artist, writer, director, and now an organic farmer.

Isabella Rossellini was born in 1952 to Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini. She has a twin sister named after her mother and an older brother, Robertino Ingmar, whom she often joins in retrospectives celebrating their legendary parents. 

When she talks about her childhood, she does so with a wistful nostalgia. She fondly recalls time spent with them while acknowledging their long absences when their demanding careers required them to travel, leaving her and her siblings at home. 

In the 1996 documentary “The Hollywood Collection: Ingrid Bergman Remembered,” Rossellini describes herself as a ball of energy. Her parents often had to tell her to quiet down because they were reading or working on a film project. When they’d leave, she enjoyed having the run of the house.

Sadly, her parents didn’t live to ripe old age. Her father suffered a fatal heart attack in 1977 at age 71. Bergman bravely battled breast cancer for several years before succumbing in 1982 at age 67. 

Isabella and her sister in Sardinia during the 1960s
Rossellini has referred to her lineage as both a blessing and a burden. While being the daughter of two film luminaries opened doors for her in the industry, it also made her the target of mean-spirited criticism. When her acting was negatively compared to her mother’s, it hurt her feelings, but it also toughened her up, making her the strong, resilient woman she is today. Those judgments seemingly never caused resentment. She always speaks lovingly of her parents in documentaries and interviews honoring their legacies. 

Rossellini’s first feature film role came in Vincent Minelli’s 1976 “A Matter of Time,” in which she appeared with Bergman and Liza Minelli. Shortly thereafter, she met Martin Scorsese while she was working for a variety show in Italy. She was assigned to interview him about his new release, the 1977 film “New York, New York.” She admitted to not having seen the film, and he offered to arrange a private screening. The two hit it off, and they were married in 1979. 

When Bergman’s health took a turn for the worse, Rossellini traveled to her mother’s home in London to be with her at the end of her life. But the time away from New York put a strain on her marriage. Reeling from her mother’s death, Rossellini felt the need to be free, and she and Scorsese divorced in 1982. 

Photo by Georges Biard
The mid-’80s to the mid-’90s were busy years for Rossellini, involving a dizzyingly varied array of films. She was involved in a romantic relationship with American director David Lynch when he cast her in the 1986 neo-noir thriller “Blue Velvet.” That role set the stage for a string of appearances in popular films, including Joel Schumacher’s romantic comedy “Cousins” (1989), Lynch’s darkly comic crime drama “Wild at Heart” (1990), Robert Zemeckis’ comic fantasy/horror flick “Death Becomes Her” (1992) and Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s heartfelt period piece “Big Night” (1996).

“The Hollywood Collection: Ingrid Bergman Remembered” was the first of several high-profile projects celebrating the life of Bergman and the elder Rossellini that would call on their children's participation. The story is told through recordings of Bergman as well as commentaries by Rossellini and Bergman’s other daughter, Pia Lindstrom. Bergman’s and Rossellini’s voices are so stunningly similar that at times it’s a challenge to keep track of who’s talking.

In 2005, Rossellini paid tribute to her father at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. There, she presented a short film that she wrote about her father and his contribution to Italian cinema. Directed by Guy Maddin, “My Dad Is 100 Years Old” features a cast of characters who played important roles in her father's life and career. Among them were Federico Fellini, Charlie Chaplin, and Alfred Hitchcock. 

During a Q&A session after the screening, Rossellini said that part of the reason she made the film was to express the complexity of having a father who was a genius. She portrayed him as a large belly that wiggled as her father spoke. There was no face, only a chest and stomach. The choice to represent her father in such a way sparked public criticism from her sister. However, Isabella defended her choice, saying that when she was a child, she rested her head on her father's belly, and that thought still gave her a sense of comfort. She also found it funny and wanted to add an element of comedy to the film. 

Rossellini and Antonio Monda, Rome 2015
In 2015, she took part in “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” at Rome’s annual film festival. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Stig Björkman, the documentary is based on Bergman’s home movies, diary entries, and letters to her friends. It features her four children talking about their memories of their mother. The documentary is currently available to stream on many platforms, with an extended version on the Criterion Channel featuring interviews with Rossellini and her siblings. In one heartfelt clip, the siblings discuss their longing to have known Bergman better and to have had a relationship with her as mature adults.

In her 50s, while continuing her prolific acting career with diverse roles on both stage and screen, Rossellini decided to pursue a lifelong fascination with and affection for animals. After earning a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation, she wrote and starred in productions that examined the lives and behaviors of animals. They include “Link Link Circus,” which delves into animal cognition, and “Green Porno,” an offbeat and educational look at animal reproduction. The latter series aired on the Sundance Channel and was later adapted for the stage, with Rossellini performing the key roles. 

In recent years, she has added voice-over work to her impressive array of credentials, offering standout performances as the Bat Queen in the Disney animated series “The Owl House” and as Nana Connie in the Oscar-nominated stop-action feature “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.” Her resume has blossomed over the decades to include six writer credits, seven director credits, and more than 100 roles in films and TV series.

These days, she is enjoying her life as a grandmother and proprietor of Mama Farm, a 28-acre farm on Long Island that also serves as a bed-and-breakfast and setting for special events. According to its website, Mama Farm aims to be “the piazza for our community, where knowledge and inspiration can be shared, with a common goal of preserving and celebrating the heritage of our environment and Mother Nature, the mama on whom we all depend.” 

Even with the demands of running a farm, Rossellini has continued her film career. In the spirit of a true Renaissance woman, she’s working as much as ever. She has several new projects in production, including the upcoming “La chimera” by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher and “Silent Life: The Story of the Lady in Black,” a film about the mysterious woman who claimed to be Rudolph Valentino’s last love. Both are slated for release this year. 

Click here to follow Rossellini's adventures on Instagram. Most of the aforementioned films are available online. Click on the titles for direct links. 

- Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the May 2023 issue of Fra Noi magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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