Roberto Rossellini: Early Life and Experiences

Early one evening in October of 1922, shortly after he had come to power, Mussolini led his black-shirted followers to Rome to make his first balcony appearance at the Hotel Savoia on Via Ludovisi. Directly across the street, at from the Rossellini house, 16-year old Roberto and his brothers excitedly waited at the window for the events to begin. Their father on his return home, opened the door and, without even glancing out of the window said, 'Boys, remember that black hides dirt very well.' This was Rossellini’s introduction to Fascism as he recalled it (Apra 37).

Rossellini grew up in a Roman bourgeois family. His father constructed the Corso movie theater, the first modern movie theater in Rome, where young Rossellini had a free pass to see all of the movies that he wanted, and he went there everyday. Through his father and the theater, Rossellini began to meet the various people working within the movie industry. When his father died in 1932, Rossellini went on to use these contacts to find his first job, at 26 years of age, in order to support himself. As for his mother, she taught him important lessons about spiritualism. Through he neither considered himself religious nor had a strong faith in God, Rossellini grew up in his mother’s household with a strong Christian foundation. This foundation made itself known throughout his film career taking shape in the moral messages that each film possessed (Apra 5).

In 1932 Rossellini worked to support himself as a soundman for films where he enjoyed experimenting with different materials to create realistic effects. In a 1973 interview Rossellini reflected on this early experience, 'for example, I discovered that a crumpled up newspaper against a door gives wonderful ocean effect' (Apra 33). In these early years Rossellini performed a myriad of odd jobs within the cinematic realm including, screen writing, dubbing and set design. By acting as ‘gopher’ he learned every aspect involved in making a film, and he learned them well.

With this experience Rossellini was ready to experiment on his own. He made a short documentary on animals and, in an interview 40 years later, he described why. 'I liked to make documentaries. I always had a tendency toward documentaries, not a superficial sense, but as an instrument of research' (Apra 34). This documentary, Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune” (1938), was his first solo effort in film making although aided by his brother, Renzo, who later became the music writer for all Rossellini's films. Other documentaries followed, including Il ruscello di Ripasottile and Fantasia sottomarina, the latter made entirely underwater.

Unbeknownst to Rossellini, life in Italy was about to take a drastic turn. One year later, in 1939, the Second World War began.

Rossellini's Early Films