On June 18, 2006, a Father’s Day, Isabella Rossellini’s short film, My Dad is 100 Years Old, made its American television premiere on the Sundance Channel. The film is about Isabella’s father, Roberto Rossellini, who would be 100 this year, if he were still alive.
Synchronistically, on the same day, veteran Warner Brothers director Vincent Sherman passed away, just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday. It turns out that a lot of significant film people were born in 1906 – not only Roberto Rossellini and Vincent Sherman, but Luchino Visconti, Anthony Mann, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, and Carol Reed, among others.
But back to the Rossellini film. It is written by and stars Isabella Rossellini, and was directed by Canadian independent/avant-garde filmmaker Guy Maddin, best known for his feature The Saddest Music in the World, also starring Ms. Rossellini. My Dad is 100 Years Old is a kind of Socratic dialogue in which Isabella and her father debate Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, Federico Fellini, and Isabella’s mother, Ingrid Bergman, concerning the nature of cinema – and the value, if any, of Rossellini’s particular brand of cinema. Selznick represents the cinema of storytelling, derived from theater and the novel; Hitchcock represents the cinema of emotion, of fear and desire; Fellini, the cinema of dreams. As opposed to the “escapist” artifice of Hitchcock, Selznick, and Fellini, Rossellini’s cinema is driven by the mind and its need to know Reality. “I am not an artist!” Rossellini proudly declares. All of the parts, with the partial exception of Roberto, are portrayed by Ms. Rossellini. Roberto is visually portrayed by a giant belly (the way Isabella remembers him) for which Isabella provides the booming voice.
The film begins in a foggy black and white limbo out of which Roberto’s belly emerges like a firmament from the primordial waters. Stylistically, the opening resembles the opening of Welles’ expressionistic Macbeth, with the clay figure of MacBeth emerging dripping from the fog-shrouded cauldron of the Three Witches. When Rossellini’s antagonist, Hitchcock, enters the debate, the film congeals into a more solid reality, an abandoned movie theater, where Hitchcock is an orating silhouette on a balcony, and Ingrid Bergman appears as an image (an uncanny impression by Isabella) projected on a tattered movie screen.
The charm of the film lies in its divided soul. Its loyalties are hopelessly torn between Isabella’s mother’s cinema, the cinema of artifice, and her father’s Cinema of Reality. Content-wise, the film belongs to her didactic father – it has no story, it is a presentation of conflicting ideas – but visually, the film aligns with Fellini’s cinema of memory and dreams.