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The oldest neo-realist

Roberto Rossellini at 100
By GERALD PEARY  |  June 7, 2006

ROMA, CITTÀ APERTA: Bucking the studio system.

The MFA is showing two of his essential works, Francesco, giullare di Dio/The Flowers of St. Francis (1950; June 15-16) and Roma, città aperta/Rome, Open City (1945; June 24). Too bad there’s no encompassing Boston retrospective in the centenary year of Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, founder of neo-realism and perhaps one of the 10 greatest filmmakers.

Among very advanced cinéastes, including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Martin Scorsese, the cinema doesn’t get more profound than the personal movies that Rossellini forged with then-wife Ingrid Bergman: Stromboli (1950), Europa 51 (1952), and, above all, Viaggio in Italia/Voyage to Italy (1953). For just about everyone else, his films are forgotten, as his daughter, Isabella Rossellini, sadly acknowledges in “My Dad Is 100 Years Old,” a 16-minute centenary birthday present she wrote and starred in. This dreamy film homage to her father, who died in 1977, plays at the MFA on a bill with Francesco, giullare di Dio. Isabella enlisted her ultra-imaginative Canadian filmmaker friend Guy Maddin to direct, so what emerges is a happily eccentric hagiography.

Roberto Rossellini floats through the movie as a mountainous stomach. That’s Isabella’s sensate memory of him, a huge-tummy blob of intellectual energy lying through the workday in bed, from where he ate, edited his films, met with visitors, and greeted his children. Instead of a mother’s breasts, Isabella’s maternal remembrance is embracing her dad’s warm and welcoming pot.

What else in the short? Isabella leaps about, disguising herself in male drag as a bevy of movie personages who offer droll commentary on Rossellini’s doggedly artsy, anti-commercial career. She does Federico Fellini, who was her father’s pal, but the other three impersonations, though fun, seem pretty arbitrary: Chaplin, Hitchcock, and Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick. Finally, she chips in as her mom, all dolled up 1950s style. Her Ingrid Bergman is pretty decent, especially when you realize that mom was Swedish and she’s half-Italian.

As for the two Roberto Rossellini features at the MFA: Roma, città aperta is what many students see in their Introduction to Cinema course. Here’s the movie that inspired independent-thinking Americans, offering a vital, workable, anti-Hollywood æsthetic — shooting cheaply in the streets, using natural lighting and mostly non-actors — at a time when the studio system was sovereign. And there’s the amazing Anna Magnani, whose rough, busty, earth-mama presence would influence a generation of American Method actors, starting with Brando.

His Marxist friends were angry at Rossellini when he made the respectful, even reverential, Francesco. Had he gone totally over to Catholicism in this historic film featuring an amateur cast of real Franciscan brothers playing St. Francis and his flock? But they missed the point of his lyrical, moving little movie, which is as modest as its protagonist. Rossellini’s St. Francis is a materialist first, and his Heaven is open only to those who do good deeds on Earth: provide for the poor, work for peace. What better agenda for the battered year 1950, with Europe ravaged by the Nazis and the US and Russia building nuclear bombs?

RIP: Rob Rivera, 35, of complications from multiple sclerosis, the nicest and most knowledgeable Hollywood Express video-store manager. I’d hand him a tape to rent and we’d be off on the best movie conversation. I’m sure it was true for hundreds of customers who were privy to Rob’s infectious love of cinema.

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  Topics: Film Culture , Entertainment, Movies, Martin Scorsese,  More more >
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