Mother - Actress - Spokesperson - Author - Model - Entrepreneur





 The Infinite Facets of Isabella Rossellini


It is hard, perhaps impossible, to think of Isabella Rossellini without thinking of beauty…but much like a diamond -whose beauty is measured by facets and radiance- Isabella, too, can be admired thusly.  For it is her intelligence that strikes you when you talk with this extraordinary woman, who serves as an honorary Italian cultural ambassador. It is her depth of knowledge on subjects such as fashion, cinema, art, history and her keen wit and profound observations, which quickly distract your attention from her sculpted, Botticelli inspired face to her brilliant, multi-faceted mind.


Isabella Rossellini was born on 18 June 1952 in Rome to Italian film director Roberto Rossellini and Swedish (by way of Hollywood) screen legend Ingrid Bergman.  To say her parents are a director and an actress is a spectacular understatement; Rossellini was (with Luchino Visconti and Vittorio DeScia) the godfather of neo-realism; an Italian cinematic movement that is still influencing filmmakers today.  Bergman, an icon of Hollywood's Golden Age, broke new ground as an international actress and brought classic roles to life on both screen and stage.  Rossellini's life must begin with some examination of her parents and the effect that this unique parental dynamic might have had on their daughter. Ingrid Bergman very obviously loved her children but her first passion was always her acting career. La Bergman was a complex woman who may have valued her career more than motherhood and whose artistry imbued every aspect of her daily life.  As her daughter, Isabella at times resented the commitment her mother's career demanded of her time and energy, but she never questioned it.  Roberto Rossellini was from a prominent Roman family and the son of a wealthy architect, his passion for filmmaking began in his teen years.  World War II and the reign of Mussolini would take its toll on the Rossellini family and although he got his start making documentary films for Vittorio Mussolini and the Fascist Party, he would soon be in trouble for his subversive ideas and anti-Mussolini politics as he secretly spent time taking footage of anti-Mussolini resistance fighters using a hand held camera.  In 1945, with Italy in turmoil and dangers everywhere, Rossellini was ready to begin what would become one of his great masterpieces "Rome: Open City".  Over the next 20 years he would decline many offers from Hollywood and instead remain in Italy making other classic films and experimenting and exploring with the art of cinema.  In short, he was a man of great and enviable integrity who would, and in fact did, sacrifice everything for his art.


How does one live up to all of that?  If you are Isabella Rossellini, easily and with a sublime grace that is rarely seen these days in actors and celebrities on either side of the Atlantic.  I first met Isabella Rossellini at the premiere of my play "Roman Nights" last year in New York, and we had an instant connection. The subject of my play (Tennessee Williams and Anna Magnani) intersected with her parents' lives and so we naturally had much to say to one another.  The initial awe that I felt around Isabella, fueled by both her presence and her past, was quickly replaced with a simpatia --a friendly and lively engagement.  I later realized our bond was also forged by our mutual feelings of being exiles; calling New York home but at the same time having recurring moments of longing which lead us back to Rome.


So when we talk for this article I ask Isabella, what is her most vivid early memory of Rome?  "Beffana!" she exclaims referring to the feast of the Epiphany, which is observed two weeks after Christmas. "Christmas time in Rome as a child is such a clear memory for me.  The lights, the food, visiting with friends and relatives, and the excitement in the air… The celebration of Christmas here in America seems so short, in Italy it lasts at least two whole weeks!"  Her enthusiasm is pure and genuine for this evocative memory of being a little girl in Rome and celebrating the holiday where the strega (witch) -La Beffana- comes and brings candies and little gifts… and sometimes coal!  "I remember vividly these little chocolates that were created to look like coal!  In Rome you always remember the Vigili (the civic police and crossing guards) in your neighborhood and would bring them candies and treats." That neighborhood was Rome's exclusive Parioli section off the Villa Borghese where the young Isabella lived with her parents and siblings.


When Isabella talks about her family there is great pride and also an air of resolution, for it was a childhood clearly filled with its own trials and tribulations -of the ordinary and extraordinary kind.  Rossellini and Bergman separated when Isabella was only five and later divorced.  She would go to live with her mother in Paris for three years until she was eight, returning to Rome in 1960 to live again with her father, this time in the lush and tranquil outskirts of Rome on the famed Via Appia Antica. By the time Isabella was 18 or 19, with her mother working on Broadway and in Hollywood, Isabella went to live for the first time in New York with her mother and sister Pia Lindstrom.  Bergman, whose children were all multi-lingual, insisted that Isabella learn English (in addition to her native Italian and French).  Before long she would be working in New York as a foreign correspondent for the irreverent Italian television program "L'altra Domenica".  It was during this time in the 1970's, while working with the likes of Renzo Arbore and Roberto Benigni, that the young Isabella would conduct an interview with a then hot, new Italian-American director named…Martin Scorsese.  The relationship with Scorsese endured five years, the last three as husband and wife.  The relationship ended amicably.  At this time (in her late 20's) Isabella's new fame from "'L'altra Domenica" had grown and she began her now famous and enduring modeling career.  While thoughts turned to acting, she felt intimidated, with world famous parents and a husband who is being proclaimed as one of the great new directors, is it any wonder she had misgivings?  When I ask about the idea of transitioning from modeling to acting Isabella responds with a mix of foreboding and humor that only nostalgia coupled with success can afford: "Oh, I did not dare!"  She continues self-deprecatingly: "I mean, how could I?  I felt it to be an impossibility… I thought no one would want to hear my accent… I felt I would be judged against my parents' legacies and to pursue my artistic dreams would somehow draw those comparisons."  Eventually, and lucky for us, Isabella overcame these reservations, and discovered that there was -and continues to be- considerable interest in her…as an intriguing beauty, an alluring woman, and a passionate actress.  As for the charming accent, it is safe to say millions of people (especially men) could listen to her talk for hours.


This idea of La Rossellini being a sort of Italian cultural ambassador to America makes me pose the question: what qualities do you see as being distinctly Italian?  "I think of tradition not in the provincial sense but rather the great respect for the craftsmanship (prodotti artigianiali) and artisan customs and heritage.  In Italy nothing is made poorly and people take great care in everything they do from fashion, to food, from furniture to art restoration…there is great pride that Italians take in their products no matter what they are.  No matter where you go in Italy you will find family businesses and traditions with secrets passed down from generation to generation and there is certain magic in that!  In Italy there is no shame in going into the family business but in America everyone wants to be different from their parents."Living in New York during those early years also made Isabella a bit self-conscious about going into the family business.  But since "that business" is the expansive and ever changing world of the arts in general, and cinema in particular, Isabella realized there was, in fact, room for her too!  "Look at what Miuccia Prada has done with her family business, and the Ferragamos, my god they have both completely reinvented their traditional family businesses… Maintaining all that is good from the past yet taking it into the future with style and vision. This is what is great about the Italian way."  We talk about how this is, in fact, what the modern Italian is doing, evidenced by the cache and prestige of the Made In Italy trademark.  We then joke how, no one will accuse the Italians of being the fastest (the Americans have that award) and no one will accuse the Italians of being the most efficient (that award goes to the Germans) but for outstanding quality in all areas of craftsmanship, the Italians surely win the gold.


With talk about family business and Italian tradition, our conversation understandably returns to her father.  And while Isabella proudly acknowledges her Swedish roots, it is odd that over the years the press has chosen to primarily focus on her eternally fascinating mother.  I ask Isabella what her father's legacy means to her personally and how it has informed her own life and career.  "My father was always challenging himself, always trying new things.  He believed in the art of story telling and how the individual's life fit into the dynamic of society…these are things that continue to be the focus of great works of art, film, theater etc., and this very concept eternally preoccupies the hearts and minds of artists everywhere."  During Isabella's formative 20's she had the chance to observe her father in action as director and teacher, these were obviously profound and indelible moments in the life the young Rossellini.  "Teaching was important to my father; I think he felt he learned as much as he taught from his experience as a teacher.  In his later years he enjoyed being around younger artists, and the intellectual stimulation that gave him."


Clearly Isabella thinks of (and apparently sometimes channels) both her parents when choosing her projects and the people with whom she will work.  And that decision process draws upon many invaluable lessons learned while under the wings of both Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.  "I adored and admired my father he was so experimental… always trying new things, he taught me to look at the vision of a director or the voice of an author.  You know, where the art is generated from…Today when I think of future projects and where I want to go with my career, I consider the creator, the artist in charge, and if their vision and what I can bring to the role will work well together.  I also I think I got much of my determination, desire to learn, and passion for life from my father."  The Italian tradition, passing down from generation to generation.


As if a thriving career as a model and actress were not enough, recent years have seen Isabella -like her father- continuing to learn and grow and try new things.  A new moniker that Rossellini wears is businesswoman, and as the old adage goes, when one door closes another one opens.  Isabella's advertising campaigns for the French cosmetic giant Lancôme were a tremendous success for over a decade, and profits for Lancôme certainly increased significantly under her reign as the face of Lancôme.  After a 14-year contract with the company, Isabella was not renewed as their spokes-model.  Apparently Lancôme saw Rossellini as getting too old for their young market, and they tried to force her to resign in order to avoid a public relations disaster. Isabella refused to resign and the company terminated her contract, but they obviously underestimated their clientele, since much of the public, which was outraged that Rossellini had been fired, in turn terminated their loyalty to the Lancôme brand.


While the ever-gracious Isabella does not comment too much on the negative aspects of this well-publicized if not imprudent decision, it is difficult to imagine that there was not a sting of rejection. "I did a lot of thinking about my parents and their own sense of perseverance.  They each endured many challenges in their lives together and as individuals. And I kept coming back to my father…"   Never one to dwell on the negative and with a constant thirst for new adventures, Isabella's tenacity led her to develop her own line of cosmetics.  She offers with a firm sense of integrity and confidence  "I was not passive about it.  Oh no! I decided to move on, my motto has been progress and go forward, and I have always been about evolving.  There are too many things to do in life, too many options and opportunities, I was not about to give up."  Manifesto was launched four years ago with a signature perfume and in that time the company has steadily grown into a complete line of cosmetics and personal care products (soap, body lotions, deodorant) which are currently available in eight countries.  She spent several years researching and meeting with technicians and product development experts in order to develop a line of the highest quality on which she could feel proud to put her name.  Avanti… one might say is Isabella Rossellini's manifesto!.


"Actors work a lot, they produce, they develop material for themselves, they might direct or go on to produce. But when it comes to modeling, it seemed to me that it just stopped there. Nobody capitalized on the knowledge they had acquired. Once you are older, you have to think of something else to do. When my work stopped with Lancôme, obviously I was upset because I worked with them for 14 years. It was also a big financial loss. What do you do next? It seemed logical that I would capitalize on what I had learned.  To continue on my own." I was intrigued by Isabella's strength and conviction in the face of this adversity and what amazed me was her need, after so much success, to add entrepreneur to model, actress, author and spokes-person. "My goal was to develop a line that was utterly practical and yet encouraged women to have fun with their make-up.  Both elements, to some degree, seemed to be lacking.  For example, I never liked carrying a huge bag full of makeup.  I wanted to be able to put my makeup into my pocket and go!  So I developed several Manifesto products that did just that!"  This carefree and confident idea, a clear result of her European upbringing, raises the questions about image, style and the word I have tried to avoid in this cover story…beauty.  Isabella of course has some great insights into that word. "Women are encouraged to wake up every morning and look in the mirror to see what they need to "correct" on their faces.  I find this depressing.  Also, because I do not believe in beauty standards, I wanted women to celebrate their own individuality."  The outspoken and innovative Isabella is an inspiration to so many -women and men alike.  It is this kind of free-thinking, imaginative spirit which becomes the focus of her own beauty and allure.  For Italians the sense of beauty, la bellezza, has so much more to do with the way an object is arranged and put together than the end result; which according to Italian logic would undoubtedly be beautiful since it was done right in the first place. Si fa cosi` that great expression which means it should be "done like this" can be echoed in all aspects of Italian life and art from hand made shoes to hand made pasta…doing it right guarantees bellezza!  A key component to beauty is our conscious and subconscious draw or attraction to something or someone.  This element is as elusive as it is palpable. In fact you may hear people -young and old- arguing over ideas of beauty in town squares all over Italy, but I don't know you could find one answer. We know it, we feel it, we sense it, we just have a hard time articulating it, and Isabella is a prefect example of this.   And it is this indefinable element which powerfully attracts us, that is at the core of authentic, enduring beauty.  It has more to do with the soul, and it is soulful-ness, which is exactly what Isabella Rossellini embodies.  This is further evidenced by the fact that Rossellini also lends her name and energy to many wonderful philanthropic causes around the world.  Among them Pediatric AIDS, UNICEF, the World Wildlife Foundation and other nature conservation causes, film societies and museums for cinema preservation, as well as Breast Cancer Awareness (a disease that took the life of her mother at age 67 in 1982.)  If you ask people about Isabella they all speak of her caring and giving spirit… this is a sincere and concerned woman who shows up for people in need and believes in making a contribution to the world.  All done out of the limelight, away from the cameras and without a PR staff.  Authentic beauty, Isabella's beauty  is truly more about the mind and soul.


Rossellini has been taking chances and exploring life as an actress too.  Last year she performed in Italian in the title role of Igor Stravinsky and Andre Gide's Persephone, based on Homer's version of the Greek myth, and was performed at the world famous Teatro San Carlo in Naples.   Rossellini was thrilled to work with the directors, Jean-Paul Scarpitta and Gabriele Ferro, and was drawn to Gide's feminist telling of the Greek myth. " Instead of making Persephone a passive victim caught between her mother and her husband, she decides!  In the third act of the poem, Persephone takes charge. She says that once you have been suffering, you can't turn around. You have to include it in your life. You can't ignore it anymore. This poem is about women's maturity."  But La Rossellini has much more in the works…while being very involved in her company Manifesto and lending her highly recognizable name and powerful image to various charities and causes, she is currently performing in an Off-Broadway play through May 2004 making her theatrical debut on the New York stage in Terrence McNally's "The Stendhal Syndrome".  Isabella has the lead in her next feature film, "The Saddest Music in the World" (in theaters April 30th), which is set during the Great Depression and is both melancholy and quirky.  She has a recurring role on the hit television series "Alias" and will shoot the mini-series "Earth/Sea" in Canada this summer, and then it is off to Athens, Greece for the Olympics of Culture, wherein she will read poetry and do some performing. "I want to challenge myself as an artist and so I am lucky to have an agent and people around me who support me in my endeavors, I may want to do an independent film for relatively little money, but because I find it rewarding personally and challenging artistically, I will do it."


Like the true Italian spirit… with great respect for the past and traditions, Isabella is also always moving forward, trying to pioneer her own way and do her own thing. While her luminous beauty is surely impossible to conceal or cover with stage make-up, Isabella is not so vain that she avoids parts that do not showcase her beauty.  There is an admirable sense of fearlessness about her, unlike many of her contemporaries who fear failure or are too concerned about image, Isabella has played a wide range of characters, the mesmerizing and tormented torch singer in "Blue Velvet", the sorceress with magical powers in "Death Becomes Her" and the pained paramour of Beethoven in "Immortal Beloved." More recently we have seen her as the seductive other woman in "Big Night" and the eccentric countess in "The Imposters" and in 2003 as the riveting and ruinous boss in "Rodger Dodger".  If Isabella is pondering ideas about the directors' vision and style, clearly the directors are thinking of the many dimensions Isabella can bring to the role.  Above all there is an honesty in her acting, an a honesty that brings us back to papa` and Maestro Rossellini's vision of authenticity, of a new realism… and it is these very qualities that one can count on for La Rossellini to deliver in her captivating performances.  Raw or gentle, frightening or frightened, sweet or ferocious…we don't see Isabella acting so much as we see pieces of her infinitely intriguing persona revealed to us on her terms in real time.  Family business indeed!


In the mosaic that is her book Some of Me, La Rossellini, whose colorful style of writing and speaking has been cultivated over 30 years of living in New York, astutely remarks, "True elegance is, for me, the manifestation of an independent mind… Women who stay true to themselves are always more interesting and beautiful to me. Women like Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keefe and Anna Magnani {Magnani who was directed by her father in Open City (1945) and L'Amore (1947), was also her father's lover for several years before he met and married Isabella's mother Ingrid Bergman}. These women did not submit to any style of beauty, they defined it… They had style, chic, allure and elegance but on their own terms!"  While she is very much the daughter of her famous parents, two great talents in their own right, she is completely, infinitely… ISABELLA.                 

-Franco D'Alessandro


Some of Me, Isabella Rossellini's 1997 autobiography is in many ways an homage to neorealismo as it is replete with the narrative realism of Roberto Rossellini, a humble dignity that was characteristic of Vittorio deSica, that certain grandeur for which Luchino Visconti was renowned, and the delightful magic and fantasy reminiscent of Federico Fellini.  Although Isabella Rossellini deliberately chooses to reveal only 'some' of herself in her descriptive -albeit incomplete- memoir, they are nonetheless rather amazing facets and moments. Little known facts are unveiled, for example that Isabella still communes with her dead parents and she prints some of their conversations in the book.  Though she offers the caveat: "It's a habit of mine to embellish and color events until I lose sight of what really happened." Isabella Rossellini openly admits to deceiving the reader throughout her book.  She is jovial in her little creative prevarications, as when she writes that she gave birth to two children (Elettra and Roberto) when she actually adopted her second child, a son.


Her recollections of her family and of various prominent people around her are at times touching at times intriguing.  She writes of her mother, Ingrid Bergman, who sacrificed much for her love for Isabella's father and lost favor (and work) in Hollywood for many years because of the well-publicized scandal that ensued, with insightful understanding.  Isabella openly talks about her mother's comment regarding her career being her 'top priority', and how such a public comment can unintentionally hurt a child.  But, indeed, it was a positive thing for Isabella and her siblings to have such a determined and hard working artist for a mother. As for Roberto Rossellini, who was known to stay in bed all day, fully and impeccably dressed and would conduct meetings, place phone calls and write prolifically all from his bedroom, in Some of Me La Rossellini offers that such lounging around in bed all day can help one to connect to a "spiritual and intellectual wisdom."  She goes on to say: "When we were children, one of our favorite games was throwing ourselves into Daddy's body.  Lying on his side, he pretended to be the sow and we were the piglets." The imagery is as precious as it is revealing.


What makes her beguiling -in person or reading her book- is that Rossellini is equally comfortable providing engaging insights into her often-unusual film roles as she is recollecting the painful memories of the torturous treatment she underwent for the spinal disease scoliosis.  Her book is completely original in both its content and look, and no matter what the subject she is speaking on, Isabella comes across as profoundly human and sincerely provocative.


What is very clear by her first endeavor into memoir writing, is that Isabella creates an interesting profile of an artist endeavoring to define herself on her own terms, and reveals herself as not only a natural storyteller but also, a wonderful writer.


© March 2004

Franco D'Alessandro was raised in both Italy and the United States and is a playwright living in New York.  His latest play Roman Nights (about the 25-year friendship between Anna Magnani and Tennessee Williams) premiered Off-Broadway in 2002 and will tour Europe in 2004 and 2005, and is now being turned into a feature film. He is the co-author of the soon-to-be published The Film Lovers Travel Guide To Italy.  Franco has previously written about Anna Magnani and Tennessee Williams, Alfred Hitchcock, Oriana Fallaci for Progress International Magazine.




Contact (Professional Matters): franco@francodalessandro.com

Copyright 2005-2013 Franco D'Alessandro. All Rights Reserved.