“I think you have to go back to therapy. It wasn’t enough,” says Isabella Rossellini, drily and only somewhat jokingly, to her nephew Alessandro, as he interviews her on some hard family truths. The documentary he’s making is that therapy, he tells her, earning a fixed stare of equal parts affection and skepticism. “Good luck,” she finally replies.
It’s a droll but loaded exchange between the most celebrated child and the self-declared misfit of the Rossellini dynasty, hinting at varying levels of privilege and damage among the families it comprises. It’s a cobweb of dysfunction founded, Alessandro believes, in the self-determined moral code of their shared patriarch, trailblazing Italian filmmaker Roberto. “The Rossellinis” represents Alessandro’s attempt to unparcel that legacy, though it often plays as personal catharsis in the guise of wider family counseling.
The flashes of discomfort and occasional hostility emerging from that disconnect are what make the film intriguing, even if the younger Rossellini’s techniques as both a filmmaker and an interviewer border on gauche. The very premise of the documentary is self-indulgent. Alessandro, the son of Roberto Rossellini’s eldest living child Renzo and the African-American dancer Katherine Cohen, is a recovering drug addict who has diagnosed himself with the separate affliction of “Rossellinitis”: a chronic state of insecurity, stemming from being born into a clan “where you’re expected to be cultured and creative by nature.” His relatives are bemused when he brings up the term. His efforts to pitch individual crisis as a shared condition aren’t necessarily a success, though he exposes tricky, intricate family politics in the process.
“The Rossellinis” — which premiered last year in Critics’ Week at Venice, before embarking on the docfest circuit — isn’t Alessandro’s first stab at capturing his thorny family history in documentary form. A previous attempt at launching the project culminated in the short “Viva Ingrid!,” a more straightforwardly celebratory tribute to his grandfather’s most famous wife Ingrid Bergman. Via archive materials and the bittersweet recollections of her three children, Bergman remains a critical presence in this documentary — and the chief hook for an international audience less versed in the Rossellinis’ Italian celebrity. What he gathers of her and his grandfather’s marriage and acrimonious divorce is nothing that Hollywood scholars don’t already know. Its trickle-down effects on their children’s lives, meanwhile, are selectively guarded in Alessandro’s one-on-one interviews with them.
Anyone hoping for gossipy showbiz color may come away disappointed. Isabella is a wry and quizzical interviewee, though she doesn’t hold forth on her glittery career or romantic life. Instead, she’s briskly candid about the pressure she felt, as the most famous and wealthy of her father’s children, to financially sustain her extended family — Alessandro, with his history of substance abuse problems, included. She has wrestled with the Rossellini inheritance onscreen before, writing and narrating the Guy Maddin documentary short “My Dad Is 100 Years Old,” to the consternation of her twin sister, New York-based academic Ingrid: Perhaps that past experience is part of the reason the Rossellinis approach Alessandro’s camera with a smiling wariness, knowing full well what tension it can foster.
Interactions with the director’s suave uncle Robin, who lives a solitary life on his mother’s estate at Sweden’s Danholmen Island, are less flinty, but also not entirely forthcoming. Alessandro’s visit to the estate is most interesting for what it reveals of how he perceives his own place in the extended family, as he describes himself as “the little Black nephew about to disembark at the mythical temple of the Bergmans.” Alessandro’s biracial identity, and how he feels it distinguishes (or separates) him from other Rossellinis, surfaces repeatedly as a point of concern, though it’s rarely addressed head-on — even in the film’s final third, where he journeys to Qatar to interview his aunt Nur, the daughter of Roberto and his fourth wife, Indian writer Sonali Senroy Das Gupta. The Rossellini surname, he implies, is an identity that subsumes all others.
For all its ambitious breadth of scope, “The Rossellinis” is best when it sticks closest to home for the filmmaker. Alessandro’s own children, perhaps protectively, are left out of the equation, but the film’s most affecting stretches document his years-in-the-making reunion with his estranged mother Katherine, now living in a modest New York nursing home and long removed from the merry-go-round of Rossellini issues, even if she’s had her own alcoholism to contend with. Alessandro’s producer father Renzo, meanwhile, is mostly good-humored about a life and career in cinema that never quite escaped the long shadow of his father, whose legacy further permeates “The Rossellinis” via a thrilling selection of film clips. (They speak for themselves rather better than Alessandro’s commentary on them, which is limited to such bland generalities as calling “Rome, Open City” a “masterpiece of cinema.”) If this flawed but compellingly heartfelt doc never quite outpaces Roberto Rossellini’s shadow either, well, that’s largely its point.