3 June 2016

Roberto Rossellini - film director

Roman movie pioneer whose 'neo-realism' had lasting influence

Photo of Rossellini and Ingrid Bergmann
Roberto Rossellini pictured with his third wife,
the Swedish acress Ingrid Bergmann
Film director Roberto Rossellini died on this day in 1977 in Rome, the city that provided the backdrop to his greatest work and earned him the reputation as the 'father of neo-realism'.

Rossellini had been associated with the Fascist regime during the early part of the Second World War, in part due to his friendship with Vittorio Mussolini, the film producer son of the dictator, Benito Mussolini.  His three wartime movies, The White Ship, A Pilot Returns and The Man with a Cross, all had elements of pro-Fascist propaganda.

But after Mussolini was dismissed and his government collapsed in 1943, Rossellini began work on the anti-Fascist film Rome, Open City, which he described as a history of Rome under Nazi occupation.

It starred the popular actor Aldo Fabrizi in the role of a priest ultimately executed by the Nazis and the actress Anna Magnani as the heroine, Pina, but also featured footage of real Roman citizens originally intended to be used in two short documentary films.  Rossellini also used non-professional actors for many scenes, feeling that they could portray the hardships and poverty of Rome under occupation more authentically.  Rossellini's brother, Renzo, a musician, wrote the score.

The difficulties faced in production, such as the scarcity of film and an unreliable electricity supply, affected the quality of the end product but somehow added to the realism Rossellini sought to capture.

Rome, Open City was not well received by cinemagoers in Italy, who wanted escapism rather than to be confronted with a reality they knew only too well. There was still much war damage in evidence in Rome when the film had its premiere in September 1945.

However, it won critical acclaim and several major awards, including the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946.  It was also nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay, written by Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei. Rossellini went on to direct Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948), also regarded as classics.  The three movies became known as his Neorealist Trilogy.

Rossellini's later films were not commercially successful but his status in the history of Italian cinema was established and he has been cited as a major influence by many directors since, including the Italian-American colossus of American cinema, Martin Scorsese.

Photo of plaque commemorating Rossellini
A plaque on a wall in the Via degli Avignonesi marks one of
the locations used for Rossellini's film 'Rome, Open City'
Born in Rome in 1906, Rossellini's love of the cinema was influenced by his father, an architect, Angiolo Giuseppe "Beppino" Rossellini, who owned a construction company in Rome and built the city's first cinema, the Barberini, to which he gave the young Roberto an unlimited free pass.  After his father died, Roberto worked in a number of jobs related to film production and gained experience in many parts of the movie-making business.

His private life was turbulent.  The first of his four marriages was to a Russian actress, Assia Noris, whom he divorced in 1936 in order to marry Marcella de Marchis, a costume designer.  In 1948 he received a letter from Ingrid Bergman, the beautiful Swedish actress who had starred opposite Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Cary Grant in the Hitchcock thriller Notorious, in which she declared herself "ready to make a film with you".

By coincidence - it is assumed - the characters in Rome, Open City had included one called Bergman and another called Ingrid.

They began an affair during the shooting of their first collaboration. It was regarded as a scandal in some countries, given that they were both married, and filled many column inches in the gossip magazines.  Bergman became pregnant with Roberto Ingmar Rossellini, after which they were married. They had two more children, Isabella Rossellini, the actress and model, and her twin, Ingrid Isotta.

While married to Bergman, Rossellini was invited by the Indian Prime Minister, Jewaharlal Nehru, to help revive the ailing Indian cinema industry and began an affair with the Indian screenwriter, Sonali DasGupta, herself married. The scandal led Nehru to ask Rossellini to leave India.

Dasgupta quit India with him to become his fourth wife, although he would walk out on her in 1973, four years before his death from a heart attack, after beginning a relationship with a young woman, Sylvia D'Amico.  He was survived by six children, plus one adopted stepson and a stepdaughter.

Travel tip:

Rossellini's childhood home was in Via Ludovisi, situated in the rione of the same name, one of 22 neighbourhoods that make up the Centro Storico (Historic Centre) of Rome.  Ludovisi is dominated by the elegant, upmarket Via Vittorio Veneto.  The Cinema Barberini, built by Rossellini's father, is on Piazza Barberini.  He began shooting Rome, Open City, just a few streets away in Via degli Avignonesi.

Photo of the Fontana del Tritone
The Fontana del Tritone in Rome's
Piazza Barberini, close to Rossellini's home
Travel tip:

Piazza Barberini is a large square in Rome's Centro Storico situated on the Quirinal Hill. It was created in the 16th century and although many of the surrounding buildings have been rebuilt, the Fontana del Tritone or Triton Fountain, sculpted by Bernini between 1642 and 1643, remains intact as its centrepiece.

(Photo of Fontana del Tritone by Alers CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of plaque by Lalupa CC BY-SA 3.0)


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