In the opening scenes of The Rossellinis, we see the titular family in mourning, walking in a procession behind their departed patriarch. For many viewers, the name of the deceased – Roberto Rossellini – will be familiar, due to his celebrated career as a filmmaker. As with any family, however, the memories of a loved one can be more complicated, as is the case with this captivating documentary’s director Alessandro Rossellini. The grandson of the icon of Italian neorealism (born out of a short-lived relationship between Renzo Rossellini and an African-American dancer named Katherine O’Brien), Alessandro is just a boy in this archival funeral scene. Decades later, this is just one of many important moments in the lives of Rossellini’s descendants, who were left with “no inheritance, just family conflict.”
The Rossellinis is Alessandro’s attempt to understand this legacy of family conflict. His investigation is predicated on a theory he has devised to rationalize the impact of Roberto on his children’s lives. He calls it Rossellinitis, a hereditary disease characterized by shared traits including an irreverence towards societal mores, infidelity, drug addiction and a general egotism. To test his theory, he travels the world to speak with fellow members of an ever-expanding family (Roberto Rossellini married four times and fathered seven children). Guided by his memories of the past and archival images and videos, he reopens wounds throughout this journey as he tries to better understand his family and himself.
While Alessandro’s Rossellinitis may be a dubious ailment, there’s no doubt that he does share his grandfather’s knack for cinematic storytelling. Indeed, from the very first scene we are gripped by this family saga, as the solemn funeral scene effectively conveys the gravity of a wounded dynasty. And in documenting his travels to the far flung residences of the family members, Alessandro gives an impressive sense of scale. Together with seamlessly interspersed video and audio recordings – both public and private – Alessandro thus paints a vivid family portrait with Roberto at the center.
Indeed, there’s a lot to unpack in this complex family dynamic, which includes adopted Indian children, an academic, a famous model/actress (Isabella Rossellini) and a disatissfied wife (Ingrid Bergman) who was a cinema legend in her own right. As such, there are arguably too many branches of this family tree to adequately inspect in 96 minutes. And while Alessandro claims that most of his offspring felt like “losers at birth” in the shadow of Roberto, it gradually becomes clear that each forged their own unique paths despite their insecurities.
In trying to answer the “nature vs nuture” argument underpinning his Rossellinitis diagnosis, however, Alessandro ultimately neglects one key piece of the puzzle. Namely, there’s virtually no mention of Roberto Rossellini’s background. As such, fundamental questions about his upbringing and his interest in movies – especially when Ingrid states that he never watched films made by other directors – are left unanswered. The Rossellinis is definitely worth seeing for its engaging attempt at personal and familial reconciliation. But in the end, its most essential figure remains elusive.