Ingrid Bergman, As Time Goes By...

Last week at BAM, Isabella Rossellini co-starred, with Jeremy Irons, in a live tribute to her mother, Ingrid Bergman. The event began BAM’s Ingrid Bergman centenary film festival, which continues through Tuesday. It rounds up the usual suspects— “Casablanca,” “Notorious,” “Gaslight” “Spellbound”—along with early Swedish dramas; two of the films Bergman made with Isabella’s father, Roberto Rossellini, “Europa ’51” and “Journey to Italy”; Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata”; “Murder on the Orient Express,” for which she won her third Oscar; and others. Before an afternoon rehearsal for the tribute, Rossellini, sitting on a couch in the elegant green room at BAM, talked about her impulse to preserve her parents’ work. “Does it have to be preserved?” she asked. “I remember talking to Bernardo Bertolucci, and he said, ‘I believe in the mandala, I believe I’m a little bit of a Buddhist. I believe that things are impermanent.’ ” Rossellini’s accent—as many of us have observed over the years, in everything from “Blue Velvet” to “30 Rock” to “Green Porno”— is like her mother’s, with a little something extra. “And then I speak to Martin Scorsese, with whom I was married, and he says, ‘Rock and roll and films—this is the culture that has characterized our century the most.’ We have to preserve all of it.”

In 2006, Rossellini made a comic, affectionate short film called “My Dad Is 100 Years Old,” directed by Guy Maddin. In it, she performed the roles of Fellini, Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, Charlie Chaplin, herself, her mother, and her father’s voice. The rest of her father was played by a belly. “Some of my family were offended by ‘My Dad Is 100 Years Old,’ because it was a surrealist film, and I portrayed my father as a belly,” she said. “To me it was like a Buddha belly or a pregnant belly, because he was fat. Most of my films are comical. But some members of my family found it was disrespectful. So this time around, I said, I’m going more traditional.”

Rossellini enlisted the help of Guido Torlonia and Ludovica Damiani, whose appreciations of Fellini and Visconti she had seen in Italy. “They had two actors, a woman and a man, reading from theatre reviews, a piece of a letter. There were photos, clips, even newsreels, which we also have tonight, so you also know where is it placed, their life, what kind of history is happening. And I thought it was so pleasant—in an hour and a half, you really have a portrait of the person, the time, and the reaction to the person. Since I didn’t want to write my own thing, because it always comes out a little bit surreal and comical—that seems to be my voice as a writer—I said, Let’s just use her autobiography.”

In the nineteen-forties, Bergman was one of the best known and most beloved movie stars in the world. Her affair with Roberto Rossellini, in 1949, caused a scandal that threatened to overshadow her reputation as an actor. Rossellini told me that with the tribute, “What I wanted to say about my mom is that my mom was an artist, and for her it was an urgency. If she didn’t act, she was not happy. How this came about, I don’t know. If you want to be like Lucy, five-cents psychiatrist, you could say, ‘She was an orphan, it was only when she entered dramatic school that she found happiness again, and from then on she was hooked.’ But I think life’s more complicated than that. I think sometimes she regretted it—she wanted to be a more present mother or a more present wife. When she wrote her autobiography—which she did for us, and I’m very grateful, because I consult that book a lot—I could see that she wrote so she could justify, she could tell her story. There is an emphasis on trying to explain. But in fact, what people remember her for is her art. Which is the one thing she wanted.”

In the show that night, with nearly hundred-year-old photographs of Bergman onscreen behind her, Rossellini read Bergman’s description of herself as a child: “As a little girl, I was always being something else: a bird, or a lamppost, a policeman, a postman, a flower pot. I remember the day I decided to be a small dog. I was quite disconcerted when my father refused absolutely to put a leash around my neck and take me for a walk…. I still trotted at his heels woofing at all the passersby and cocking my leg up against every tree we passed.”

The performance led the audience through Bergman’s story, with Rossellini and Irons alternating readings of Bergman’s memoir, along with letters. Glorious photographs, home movies, and film clips, from Sweden, Hollywood, Italy, and beyond, showed onscreen above them. The show revealed what Rossellini intended it to: Bergman’s playfulness, joyfulness, experimentalism, naturalism.

Bergman went to drama school at age twelve, after her father’s death, and as a young woman she began acting in Swedish films. The director Gustaf Molander taught her, she wrote, “how to underplay, to be absolutely sincere and natural: ‘Never try to be cute. Always be yourself.’ ” When she came to Hollywood, when David O. Selznick decided to remake her Swedish hit “Intermezzo,” he wanted her to change her name—too German, too hard to pronounce—and she refused. In the performance, Jeremy Irons read, “Selznick looked fumbled and then said, ‘I’ve got an idea! It is a simple idea yet none in Hollywood has even tried it before. Nothing about you is going to be touched. Nothing altered. You will remain yourself. Ingrid Bergman is going to be the first natural actress!’ ” She relished challenging roles, such as a burn victim in the Swedish melodrama “A Woman’s Face”; in Hollywood, during the filming of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” she asked the director, Victor Fleming, if she could switch roles with Lana Turner: “I wanted to play the little tart in the bar, the naughty little Ivy.” And she did.

The audience clapped spontaneously when clips of “Casablanca” were shown—the “Play it, Sam” scene and the “hill of beans” scene. The world remembers “Casablanca” more fondly than Bergman did. During filming, she wrote, Humphrey Bogart was grouchy and distant, and the production was chaotic. Rossellini read, “When I asked who I was supposed to be in love with, Paul Henreid, who played my husband, or Humphrey Bogart, who played my lover, Curtiz told me: ‘We don’t know yet. Just play it … well … in between.’ ”

Bergman’s zest and merriment came through in the descriptions of the making of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Gaslight,” “Spellbound,” and “Notorious”; she became good friends with Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, and Jean Renoir and his wife. Rossellini read her mother’s description of Hitchcock’s intimate dinner parties: “ ‘More than eight people around the table is an insult to friendship,’ he would say. Hitch, because I could drink a lot and never get sick, awarded me with the honorary title of the ‘human sink.’ ” A charming late clip played, of Bergman saluting Hitchcock at his AFI Life Achievement award, in which she calls him a “gentleman farmer who raises gooseflesh.”

In 1947, Bergman began filming “Joan of Arc,” directed by Fleming. Rossellini read, “Like all the motion pictures done in Hollywood at the time, everything was shot in the studio: the battle scenes, the towers of Chinon, and the French villages were painted backdrops.” Onstage, Bergman’s own behind-the-scenes footage, shot on 16-mm. film, played above Rossellini and Irons. Rossellini read, “I wanted to get out into the world; I wanted to be where the real people were. I was seeking the truth.” One night, Bergman saw Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 neorealist masterpiece “Open City,” about Rome during Nazi occupation. “The realism and simplicity of the film was heart shocking,” Bergman wrote. “No one looked like an actor, no one talked like an actor.”

Bergman wrote Rossellini a letter: “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.” Rossellini didn’t know Bergman. Jeremy Irons read, “Well, who is this Ingrid Bergman? Wait a minute … ‘Intermezzo’? That Swedish film.” He had seen it during a bombing raid. “I ran into the nearest place to shelter—a cinema. What better place to lose one’s life than in a comfortable seat in a cinema?” He had sat through it three times: “It was a very long bombing raid.” He accepted her offer with enthusiasm.

In the green room, Rossellini said to me, “My father is trying to figure out, how do you integrate a big Swede that doesn’t speak Italian, blond, blue eyes?” He was a neorealist director, and his style, not to mention Bergman’s, required naturalism. “So one day he is travelling outside of Rome, and he sees a refugee camp. And he writes to my mother, ‘I saw this refugee camp, this field with these women looking like lambs, just walking around. One was a little bit separated from the others, and she was gesticulating to me…. I had the feeling that she was trying to seduce me.’ This is the beginning of ‘Stromboli.’ A woman that does not want to go back to Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, a country that was completely devastated by the war. Her only chance is to seduce an Italian to stay. She happens to go to Stromboli, a primitive island, this incredible cultural clash.”

Bergman and Rossellini, who were both married, with children, fell in love on the set of “Stromboli.” In the performance that night, Rossellini read, “As soon as we got to the island of Stromboli, a small volcanic island north of Sicily, and began to film, everyone realized that Roberto and I spent more time together than was necessary just to shoot a movie.… The Italian press, scenting amore as sharks scent blood, were already dispatching to the island reporters disguised as fishermen, as tourists. On one occasion one came as a monk.” Bergman, who had played a nun and a saint, became pregnant with their son, scandalizing the world. In the U.S., she was condemned as a “powerful force for evil” on the Senate floor. Bergman and Rossellini divorced their spouses, married, and had two more children: Isabella and her twin sister, Ingrid. They made five films together.

Rossellini said to me, “A lot of people have asked me, ‘Was she an early feminist?’ She was an artist. She had to do what she had to do. It happened that she did it at a time in which women’s roles were changing. She was punished for her independence. It was society that wasn’t feminist.”

With Rossellini, Bergman made great art; the commercial world didn’t know how to respond to it, but, as Richard Brody has written, the films, in particular “Journey to Italy,” helped to inspire the French New Wave.

Over the years, Bergman wrote, “I started to feel resentful of Roberto’s jealousy and possessiveness. He wouldn’t let me work with any other director”—not Zeffirelli, Fellini, Visconti, or De Sica. “It was my old friend Jean Renoir who rescued me,” she wrote. Renoir visited the couple, offered Bergman a role in a film, and encouraged Rossellini to shoot a documentary in India. “He came back from India with his documentary and a pregnant Indian woman. I felt a smile spreading on my face from ear to ear. I was so relieved. For him and for me. Now we had solved it.”

After they divorced, Bergman married a Swedish theatre producer, Lars Schmidt. In home movies shown during the performance, Bergman, her four children, and Schmidt frolicked in full-color midsummer joy on Schmidt’s remote Swedish island. Bergman made many other films, including “Anastasia,” a television production of “Hedda Gabler,” “Cactus Flower,” with Goldie Hawn, “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Autumn Sonata,” and “A Woman Called Golda,” in which she played Golda Meir. At the end of the show, Rossellini read, “There is something so dramatic, nostalgic, and heartbreaking about the end of a run of a play or a film shoot. We had been a wonderfully friendly and tightly knit company. Then of course it comes to an end.” You have a party, “you go from dressing room to dressing room and everybody’s kissing everybody else, and everybody is in tears. It’s such desperation when you leave. It’s divorce from the people you have learnt to love, and you say: shall we ever meet again?”

In the green room, Rossellini told me that Jean Renoir had written a book that she’d read with interest: “the most beautiful book on his father, Auguste Renoir, the painter,” she said. “Jean Renoir was a soldier when he was eighteen, in World War I, and he was wounded. When Jean got wounded the father became crazy with worry, you know, and so he took Jean into his studio, always under his watch, so he could paint. He would speak to Jean about art and what he was trying to do. It’s the most incredible portrait of an artist. And there’s one thing that Jean says: ‘I have to paint. It’s like peeing. I cannot not do it.’ ” She laughed. “I always loved that. It made me understand the urgency that artists feel. You know? You see Auguste Renoir when he has arthritis and he has his hands all deformed, he used to tie brushes—have you ever seen the photo of Auguste Renoir with his hands tied like this? My mom was the same. People say, ‘Oh she’s so beautiful, the glamour!’ She couldn’t have cared less. She acted until the end. The last thing she said is, ‘They’ll always need a witch!’ ”