This much I know: Isabella Rossellini

By Helen Barlow

Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. Photo / AP
Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. Photo / AP

We used to spend the summers in Sweden. My mother [Ingrid Bergman] taught me some Swedish but I forgot it once I learned English.

I was born with spinal deformities and I have always had to have complicated spinal operations. The latest one was three years ago and I missed my mother terribly because she was the perfect nurse. The first time I had an operation I was 13. I was sick for two years and my mother took complete care of me. Two years ago, when I was talking to my sisters, Ingrid and Pia, I realised I might miss Mama less than they do, because I had so much of her presence when she was alive.

My mother's gift to cinema was her naturalness. When she first arrived in Hollywood David O. Selznick said, "Let's change your name." It was too German and at the time there was the war against Germany. She said, "Absolutely not. I have a career in Sweden, my name is Bergman and this is the way I look." Selznick said, "That's a good idea. You're going to be the first natural actress."

There is a consistency in Mama's work and I think you see her incredible vulnerability and strength. It's easier for me to look at films when she was young and harder when she was older, because this is the mother I remember.

Mama collected everything. She died in 1982 and there were not many film archives on actresses; there were some on directors. When she had cancer - and she knew it was fatal - she was putting all her photos and letters in order. I asked why she was doing that and she answered, to my surprise, "When I die these they will be archived in museums." After she died we were so lucky because I was married to Martin Scorsese, one of the biggest promoters of film restoration. So Marty navigated it with us to conserve all the papers like her contracts with Selznick, which were actually quite precious.

Mama was a photographer's daughter and she took a lot of photos and a lot of video. This was her private material that had never been seen and we made it available so Stig Bjorkman could integrate it into the movie. It's fascinating to see behind the scenes of Joan of Arc with Victor Fleming or Stromboli, which she made with my father [Roberto Rossellini].

The contribution I've made is to create all these retrospectives about my mother and father and to have all their films restored. I never had to take care of Casablanca because it still makes money, but Under Capricorn, the third film my mother made with Hitchcock, has been little-seen. I love Notorious the most of all her Hitchcock films and I love Casablanca for the humour. It has a lightness and comical tone that is extraordinary.

I haven't conserved so many of my own things as I've been so busy conserving my mother's stuff. Occasionally I'm asked if I have the Blue Velvet screenplay or the ropes from the film.

It's been a gift that I look like my mother. I've made a career of it, I worked as a model for many years.

Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words is part of the New Zealand Film Festival, today until May 3.

- Canvas

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