At once respectful and irreverent, My Dad is 100 Years Old was originally conceived as a centennial tribute to the visionary neorealist Roberto Rossellini, but manages to be much more. The typically surrealistic visual quality of its director Guy Maddin pervades its entire 16-minute duration, and Isabella Rossellini’s poetic script gives the film the kind of warmth and intimacy that could perhaps only come from the subject’s daughter. In an interview with John Anderson, she states that she and Maddin set out to make neither a traditional “documentary” nor an “ultimate statement” about her father’s filmic legacy . Indeed, instead of trying to offer a somewhat objective perspective on Rossellini’s groundbreaking directorial career, the film taps into Isabella’s hyperreal dreamscape that reveals what she makes of his private and artistic life. The result is never less than startling. Not only is My Dad is 100 Years Old a daughter’s intensely personal letter to her deceased father, but also a Godardian defense of cinema as an art form.
In My Dad is 100 Years Old Isabella brings together her parents and key figures who were inextricable from their lives. Inside what seems to be a run-down movie theater, a giant belly of Roberto Rossellini partakes in a heated discussion on what cinema ought to be with Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, and Federico Fellini; Charlie Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman make brief appearances as angelic figures. Isabella plays all these characters—in the case of Rossellini’s belly, she provides her father’s voice—in addition to playing herself, and it could not be more obvious that she is recounting a deeply personal story here. However, the very personal nature of My Dad is 100 Years Old was not to everyone’s liking. Ingrid Rossellini, Isabella’s twin sister, publicly denounced the film upon its release, calling her sister’s decision to represent their father as a giant belly “offensive” and “inappropriate.” She further asserts that the film is “all about Isabella,” and has “nothing to do with [their father].”
Ingrid is absolutely right in that the film is ultimately about her sister. After all, Isabella is its writer, and even plays all the roles. But in what other way could she have told this story? At one point during the film, Rossellini’s belly says: “I don’t know why my films were called neorealism […] they should have been called ‘probable films.’” For him, filmmaking is reconstructing what has probably happened in order to understand. This is exactly what Isabella does in My Dad is 100 Years Old. She wants to understand the cinematic legacy that her father left behind, and her only way to the understanding is via her imagination and dream. The point is not in how “accurate” her understanding is, but rather in the journey itself—“Isabella’s Voyage to Rossellini,” so to speak.
In the roles of Hitchcock, Selznick, and Fellini, Isabella questions and challenges her father. Selznick asserts that cinema is good stories; Hitchcock, fear and suspense; Fellini, dream. Rossellini rebukes all of these arguments, and passionately defends his own unpopular definition of cinema. At the end of this intense interrogation, she concludes that her father’s ultimate artistic goal was knowledge: both his private pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination among the masses. “Filmmaking is knowledge-making” would be an appropriate Rossellinian maxim. Rossellini contends that since cinema is best suited for epistemic exploration, “everyone should be able to make movies.” In the last shot of My Dad is 100 Years Old, we see Isabella directing the scene, specifically requesting the “perfectly simple Rossellini framing,” as opposed to Maddin’s artsy, fluid cinematography. She starts off her journey as Rossellini’s daughter, but finishes it as a Rossellinian artist.
However, there is something unsettling about her transformation into an artist, as witnessed throughout the film. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his review, unlike Rossellini, both Isabella and Maddin are devout cinephiles with influences that are diametrically opposed to his aesthetic philosophy. Maddin constructed the film in a highly stylized, therefore anti-Rossellini style, and Isabella plays Hitchcock, Selznick, and Fellini, all of whom Rossellini chastises in the film, with affections and reverence. What is Isabelle to do with these seemingly mutually exclusive influences? In this light, My Dad is 100 Years Old can be seen as a “touching effort to reconcile her cinephilia” with her father’s legacy.
Her trouble is not unlike that of Jean-Luc Godard who has utmost respect for Rossellini, but at the same time is hopelessly smitten with Hollywood. In a 1962 interview, he admitted with much unease: “Compared to Rossellini, I have the sin of cinephilia.” Indeed, Godard’s major films from much of the 1960’s, unlike Rossellini’s neorealist work and three films starring Ingrid Bergman, borrow heavily from Hollywood genre tropes and beam with playful exuberance in their use of color and kinetic cinematography. Even in La Chinoise, his first openly Maoist film, one of its main characters staunchly defends the artistic merits of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar from the scathing accusation that all Westerns are mere reinforcement of American imperialism. Much like Isabella, Godard seems to have been torn between his mentor’s asceticism and his insatiable love of Humphrey Bogart.
Rossellini’s influence may not be steeped in Godard’s visual style, but it certainly shaped his filmmaking ethos. In My Dad is 100 Years Old, upon glimpsing Charlie Chaplin with angelic wings flying in the open air, Rossellini’s belly enthusiastically claims that Chaplin made truly “moral movies”—reflecting his championing of A King in New York upon its release in 1957. Similarly, Godard once remarked in a roundtable discussion for Cahiers du cinéma that “tracking shots are a question of morality.” For both Rossellini and Godard, filmmaking is as much a moral issue as an aesthetic one. To be Rossellini’s disciple is, therefore, not a question of adopting his ascetic style, but of becoming a moral inquisitor whose weapon of choice is cinema. Anyone can be Rossellini’s disciple as long as she takes filmmaking as a quest for moral truth.
This is how Godard reconciled his cinephilia with Rossellini’s teaching, and the same seems to hold true for Isabella in My Dad is 100 Years Old. Unfortunately, her success with the reconciliation is counterbalanced by the depressing truth that her father’s legacy is rapidly fading into oblivion. Embracing her father’s soft belly, Isabella says: “After 100 years of filmmaking, ignorance in the world is still undefeated. And your films? They are slowly being forgotten. Nothing of what you preached happened.” As his daughter, as a Rossellinian artist, and as a cinephile, she is faced with a daunting task of saving her father’s legacy from obscurity and irrelevance. Here, she again crosses path with Godard by resorting to the ultimate cinephiliac solution of keeping film history alive.
Rossellini himself may have had certain disdain and skepticism towards the medium of cinema, but his legacy lives on in the works of a generation of filmmakers who grew up watching his films. In other words, he and his work constitute an essential chapter in film history. To remember Rossellini and to acknowledge his legacy are to recognize his place in film history and the far-reaching impact his films have had on the generations that came after him. In his eight-part video series Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard devotes a substantial part of the fifth installment to paying tribute to Italian neorealism, and particularly Rossellini’s first neorealist feature Rome, Open City. He seems to say that without Rossellini, Italy’s national cinema, the French New Wave, and the post-war European cinema at large cannot be understood. Similarly, by bringing Hitchcock, Selznick, Fellini, and Ingrid Bergman into Maddin’s film, Isabella points us to the gaping hole that Rossellini’s absence might create in our understanding of film history. Especially with regard to her mother Ingrid Bergman, Isabella quietly reminds us that without her father, the most important career highlight of this Hollywood goddess ceases to exist: Journey to Italy, which François Truffaut is said to have proclaimed as the first modern film.
The visual resemblance of Isabella wearing a boyish haircut, a black turtleneck, and dark jeans in My Dad is 100 Years Old to Truffaut’s screen persona Antoine Doinel further reinforces her cinephiliac and historical concerns. A Cinémathèque française regular, Truffaut was a shrewd critic who saved the ingenious legacies of idiosyncratic auteurs like Rossellini and Hitchcock from slipping into critical indifference and obscurity. By sporting the exuberant Doinel look, Isabella puts forward a counterpoint to Godard’s melancholy-ridden Histoire(s) du cinéma. Whereas Godard laments the irreversible marginalization of cinema, she seems to suggest that the youthful energy of cinephilia can still rehabilitate cinema like it did during the New Wave. In My Dad is 100 Years Old, Isabella surely brings her father and his films back to life, thereby revitalizing cinema whose face her father helped change multiple times throughout film history: “viva Rossellini!” becomes “viva cinema!” in her hands.