Roberto Rossellini was a man misunderstood. Even today, nearly 30 years after his death, the life and work of the revered Italian film director continues to mystify and captivate his audience. A forward thinker, Rossellini was both criticized and venerated for his revolutionary spirit and relentless pursuit of the unfamiliar.
Isabella Rossellini, his daughter -- her mother was Hollywood icon Ingrid Bergman -- sat down recently with ABC's Joel Siegel to discuss her father's posthumous legacy.
"My father saw before others that film could be, could have the power of talking to a deeper part of our brains or of our hearts," she explains.
In November 2006, the Museum of Modern Art in New York unveiled two exhibits designed to give insight into Roberto Rossellini's world. The first, a film exhibition, showcases his work. The second, "Rossellini on Paper," also at MoMA, gives insight into his personal life through posters, family photographs and correspondence.
"The fact is that Rossellini was forever opening breaches," explains James Quandt, co-organizer of MoMA's film exhibition, "ruptures in conventional understanding of realism, melodrama, documentary, the nature of acting and performance, the grammar of the camera, especially the zoom, and the uses of artifice and pedagogy."
The Vanguard of Neorealism
In the first half of the 20th century, movies, more often than not, took people out of the reality in which they lived. Films such as "Casablanca," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Fantasia" dominated the box office during the 1930s and 40s and allowed audiences to escape the turmoil and uncertainty of the world around them.
"Film was really strictly entertainment fantasy, bigger than life. You went there after a day's work to get distracted, to have a laugh or a romantic cry," explains Isabella Rosselini.
Then came Roberto Rossellini with his new way of thinking, seeing and experiencing films and the stories they tell.
"My father was the first one that saw that this film, this technology that was available, was something that could bring knowledge, awareness, consciousness," she says. "And his films, they shake you to the core, and today when you look at them, they still shake you to the core."
Robert Rossellini's 1945 film "Rome: Open City" solidified what has come to be called the "neorealist" revolution, a movement aimed at objectively portraying the social reality of the years preceding and following World War II, a world permeated by the consequences of war.
Shot on the streets of Rome during World War II, "Rome: Open City" shocked audiences for its seamless combination of reality and fiction. Rossellini used real people alongside actors and wielded his camera like he was shooting a documentary. He even managed to film Nazis.
"Yes, some of the images are of the real Nazi army. He wasn't allowed to take them, so he did it secretly. And I don't really know how, because the camera was so big. Who knows, maybe, he was really pretending to be photographing something else," she says.
The Lessons of War
Rossellini, however, got away with it and the results of transforming harsh realities into cinematic art were amazing. Throughout the 1940s, films like "Paisan" and "Germany Year Zero" continued to push the envelope, changing how people interpreted films and their understanding of their role in their lives.
The influence of Rossellini's work can still be seen today in films like Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" and "Mean Streets" by Martin Scorsese, who loaned some of his personal Rossellini memorabilia to the MoMA for its exhibitions.
Even though his neorealist movement was based on the shocking reality of Word War II, Rossellini himself never saw his work as fitting into a specific era or timeline. "I wanted to reproduce the truth exactly as the camera saw it," Rossellini said before his death, "for that audience throughout the entire world which has a heart capable of love and a brain capable of thought."
"My father used to say he didn't recognize himself as a maestro, as a great filmmaker or as an artist," explains Isabella Rossellini. "He said, 'Anybody, if you have something incredible to say, something important to say, just say it, and you will be listened to.'" Now, over half a century later, the world continues to listen.