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(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Renzo Rossellini, at the Haifa International Film Festival to speak about the legacy of his late father, the master director Roberto Rossellini, promises that although this is his first visit to Israel, it won't be his last.
"I have Jewish kids," he says, explaining that his wife is an American Jewish lawyer ("I advise all my friends who want to be happy to marry a girl who is a Jewish lawyer"). He makes the comment as he takes from his pocket a black kippa, a present from his son, which he plans to wear on a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem later in the week.
But while it has taken Rossellini, who divides his time between the US and Italy, a long time get to Israel, he is happy to be here to attend the retrospective of work by his father, best known for his 1946 masterpiece Roma, Citta Aperta (Open City), a brilliant anti-war film about the Nazi occupation of Rome. Roberto Rossellini was one of the founders of the Italian neo-Realist movement, and the homage marks 100 years since his birth. Renzo, 65, who worked with his father as a producer, has been attending film festivals all over the world to mark the centenary.
The Haifa Film Festival's Rossellini retrospective features a restored print of Open City and the documentary Once Upon a Time ... Rome, Open City, about the making of the film.
The younger Rossellini sees Open City as especially relevant in Haifa after the recent war. "This is the right film at the right moment in the right place," he says, smoking thin cigarettes on the lawn behind the Haifa Cinematheque.
"Open City is one of the most important works in the first half of the 20th century," he continues. Wherever he goes, "young students know very well the work of my father ... Neo-Realism is the roots of today's cinema."
Rossellini worked with his father, whose career lasted into the Seventies, but he feels he didn't truly follow in his father's footsteps. Movies were the family business, and his uncle (also named Renzo Rossellini) composed many movie scores. When Renzo was a child, his father had a highly publicized romance with Ingrid Bergman that created a huge public scandal because she was still married to her first husband when she bore Roberto Rossellini's child. (This was decades before single parenthood became a Hollywood fad). Rossellini and Bergman eventually married, only to divorce a few years later. The pair's daughter, actress Isabella Rossellini, is Renzo's half-sister.
Although he seems most comfortable discussing his father's legacy, when pressed, Rossellini will talk about his own life - a little. He took a break from his film career to set up independent radio stations in Italy, which provided an alternative to state-controlled media. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the eighties, he went journeyed to the distant country to help the Afghan rebels set up their own radio station.
"I had my 40th birthday in Afghanistan," he recalls. "It was a very different time - the Afghans were fighting the Soviets" and the repression of the Taliban had not yet become an issue.
Asked whether he considered boycotting the Haifa Film Festival after British director Ken Loach refused to attend and called on all filmmakers to join a Palestinian boycott of Israel, he responds by saying Loach's attitude is "a little bit aristocratic." To solve a problem, Rossellini says, "the first step is to understand it, and to have a deep understanding, not just a superficial understanding. You can't understand without coming to a place. It's much easier to stay far away and say, 'That's wrong.'"
On his way to attend a dinner in his honor, Rossellini says he's looking forward to placing a note in the Western Wall with a wish. "The note will have one word: Peace," he says. "No, two words. 'Peace' and 'justice.'"
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