Isabella Rossellini on International Tribute to Her Mother, Ingrid Bergman

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Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman enjoy an ice cream during a break in shooting on the set of 'Spellbound' in 1944. Chronicle Books/Schirmer/Mosel

Of the universe's many mysteries, actor Isabella Rossellini wonders not so much about humanity's purpose, or what the future holds. She is, however, captivated by the goings-on inside porcupines' heads. "Do they think, do they feel?" she wonders aloud, on the phone to Newsweek from her Long Island, New York farm one August afternoon. "That is a very big question, and I am interested in animal cognition. If you live close to animals, you definitely have the impression that they think and feel and they reason, and they try to outsmart you."

Without the pretense, it would have been like making bar stool chatter with an eccentric biologist instead of an internationally renowned movie star. But in addition to currently pursuing a master's degree in animal behavior, Rossellini is the classically featured daughter of film legends Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, a supermodel who has been both the face of Lancôme and the star of 28 separate Vogue covers throughout the 1980s, not to mention an actress with 81 on-screen credits to her name. Rossellini, now 63, has been writ IMAX-screen large in cinema history—one of those rare breeds who can straddle avant-garde indie (Blue Velvet), period pieces (Wyatt Earp, Immortal Beloved) and television comedy (The Tracey Ullman Show, 30 Rock) with ease. Though she's an undisputed polymath, lately Rossellini has explored the curious, scientific aspects of interests, including writing, directing and starring in the Sundance TV series Green Porno. The whimsical, educational show examines the world of bizarre animal reproduction, and finds Rossellini frequently donning animal costumes for live-action vignettes.

Yet with her heart-shaped face and bow lips, Isabella Rossellini has an inescapable—and truly blessed—resemblance to her late mother, Ingrid Bergman, the great 1940s-era actress immortalized in capital-C classics like Casablanca and Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. Although Rossellini has had a remarkable career of her own as a model, actor, writer and director, it has forever been hard to see Rossellini without recalling who her mother was. Upon first meeting Rossellini, director David Lynch—whom Rossellini would go on to date—infamously said, "Hey, you know, you could be the daughter of Ingrid Bergman!" (The couple eventually broke up.) Rossellini, though, has always celebrated her mother rather than seeing her as a shadow to run from and she has this year embarked on a series of projects celebrating the centenary of her mother's birth.

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The Bergman-Rossellini family celebrating the twins’ first birthday on June 18, 1953 with their half-brother Renzo, Roberto Rossellini’s son from his first marriage. Chronicle Books/Schirmer/Mosel

Bergman's own notoriety followed her off-screen, too: in 1949, she became entangled in one of the 20th century's most scandalous affairs when she began a torrid romance with Isabella's father, the famed neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini, practically the moment she stepped on set to star in his film Stromboli. At the time, she was still married to Dr. Petter Lindström, and her pregnancy—which occurred before the film even wrapped—became the subject of international tabloid scorn.

It wasn't enough to faze Bergman, though. She gave birth to a son, Roberto, and married Rossellini shortly after, in 1950. Two years later, Isabella and her fraternal twin sister Isotta Ingrid were born in Rome. Like many children of international superstars, Rossellini was brought up in a series of homes, apartments and hotels in Europe, including Paris's opulent Hotel Raphael. Given the surreality of this upbringing, it's no wonder she jived so well with David Lynch.

Later on, Rossellini moved close to her father in Rome, so that she and her siblings could have a semblance of normal schooling and stay connected to family. After graduating high school, Rossellini studied to become a costume designer. She moved to New York at 19 with the intention of studying English because, as she told Mario Batali in a 2014 piece in Interview, "Mama was very heartbroken that we spoke fluent Italian and French, but not English...if you knew English, the doors would open everywhere." Nearly 10 years later, in 1982, the iconic photographer Richard Avedon, who knew Rossellini's then-boyfriend Fabrizio Ferri through a mutual agent, serendipitously took her photograph. That photo wasn't a forgettable front-of book shot; it was the cover of Vogue. Overnight, Rossellini, then 28, became a superstar.

In the late 1970s she had another chance rendezvous, with director Martin Scorsese, and the two were briefly married. Scorsese was the one who encouraged her to work with Lynch, then a relatively unknown director, who had offered her a starring part in his film Blue Velvet. Playing the tragic, blue-velvet-draped Dorothy Vallens would be her breakout role—no matter that she'd already been making short Italian television films alongside actor Roberto Benigni for years.

Scorsese was instrumental in helping Rossellini with her current endeavor—an ambitious series of international tributes. Rossellini says that back in the 1980s, Scorsese "a wonderful film historian, was pushing for archives and restorational films" relating to Bergman's definitive works after her 1982 death. He put her in touch with Jeanine Basinger, founder and curator of the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives, with the goal of starting an extensive archive of photos, films, letters and other ephemera, funded by donations from friends and family, as a way to remember Bergman. Over time, the collection grew into something "very, very vast," Rossellini says. But for many years it just sat in the Wesleyan Archives, only available to collectors and historians. So Rossellini called up her friend, the German publisher Lothar Schirmer—whom she had met when he bought the German rights to her memoir, Some of Me—and proposed compiling a book about Bergman's life.

Published in late July, Ingrid Bergman: A Life in Pictures is an alluring treasure trove remembering the legendary actress, with over 500 pages of never-before-surfaced photos tucked in between essays from former friends, lovers and collaborators, including John Updike and the photographer Robert Capa. Rossellini and Schirmer began working on the project in 2011, poring over the Wesleyan collection and Getty's archival images. At one point they hunkered down in Munich with the intention of editing the book down, but within three days it had actually grown. "It came out to 565 [photos]!" she says of their editing attempt. "And I asked Lothar: 'What do we do with it?' And he said, 'To hell with it, we're publishing it this way!' We referred to it as Mama's Bible."

The book opens with stills of Bergman's modest childhood in Sweden, the expressive toddler hamming it up for the camera. Film nerds will likely relish the behind-the-scenes photos leading up to her golden Hollywood days and her ascent to international stardom. (One of the most captivating images features Bergman with Gregory Peck, each mid-bite into ice-cream bars). The latter part of the book moves through her films and her much-publicized affair with—and later separation from—Isabella's father. But it doesn't skimp on the lesser-known experimental projects Bergman explored in later in life. The book ends on the days before she passed away from breast cancer, on August 29, 1982—her 67th birthday.

This fall, Rossellini is embarking on a tour of sorts to commemorate Bergman's life and to celebrate the book's release. On August 29, a Bergman retrospective opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art. (It wasn't the first tribute Rossellini helped organize at MoMA—back in 2006, she introduced some of her father's films for his retrospective.) It seems that Bergman gave some thought to just such a posthumous tribute many years ago; Rossellini says her mother had floated the idea of having each of her four children select three films and present them at a commemoration event. Her brother Roberto declined to come along, so Rossellini and her two sisters—Pia, from Bergman's first marriage, and her fraternal twin Ingrid—introduced a handful of Bergman's films at MoMA in late August.

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Isabella Rossellini makes her film debut as a nun at her mother’s side in "A Matter of Time" filmed in 1975. Chronicle Books/Schirmer/Mosel

The program featured Casablanca, of course, but other picks—such as the Roberto Rossellini-directed film Fear (1954) and a less-lauded Hitchcock picture, Under Capricorn (1949)—gave viewers a broader sense of Bergman's oeuvre. One movie on the program, the 1941 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, bucked Bergman's good-girl image. "Mother negotiated with Victor Fleming, the director, to play the naughty prostitute who is the victim of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Rossellini explains. "[We wanted to show] films like that, which illustrated Mama's sense of adventure and desire for experimentation."

In early September, Rossellini graced the stage of London's Royal Festival Hall with Jeremy Irons in a kind of theatrical tribute to Bergman. (The pair will perform a similar show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 12.) Rossellini read excerpts from Bergman's now-out-of-print 1979 autobiography, My Story, as well as letters between her and some of her more famous collaborators, notably Hitchcock and actor Joseph Cotten, of Citizen Kane fame. Rossellini's next European tribute will be in Paris, Bergman's longtime home, where she will joined by friends Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant to read seminal Bergman interviews and recount their personal memories of Bergman. Rossellini will also screen previously unseen footage Bergman shot on the set of Stromboli and Joan of Arc, as well as home movies. "['The Chicken'] is an episode of a film entitled Siamo Donne that was filmed at our house, and we were the extras," chuckles Rossellini. "So it's almost like a home movie, a charming little 20-minute film." She'll wrap the performance series on October 10 in Rome, with Italian actor and director Christian de Sica as a special guest.

Rossellini sees the performances as a way of honoring Bergman's illustrious career, which transcended genres and borders. "Mother spoke five languages and had a full career in English, a full career in Swedish, a full career in French and German, which is very unusual," Rossellini says. "Sometimes you have actresses of high reputation, like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, but they worked in Hollywood. [They never] worked in Europe as much as my mom did."

But the series is also intended to spark conversations about film preservation, history and recognition as its own art form. "[More than just] remembering my mom—and I'm delighted that people do—film deserves the same reputation as art, as music, literature, painting," she says. "So we have to behave toward this art as we have other art—with museums, archives, as historians to read it together—and invest in the effort to create memories. It's not simply, 'Don't forget my mom.'"

It's a fair point. Film as we know it is just over 100 years old, making it one of our culture's newest art forms (Internet memes and GIFs notwithstanding). When Bergman was born, the first feature-length "talkie" film—widely credited to be Alfred Jolson's The Jazz Singer, in 1927—was still years away from having its premiere. "When she was a little girl, cinema was still [just] silent movies. And when her father, my grandfather, was a baby, cinema didn't exist!" Rossellini says. "I thought the centennial [of Bergman's birth] was the opportunity to talk about film restoration, film preservation, the contribution of artists for the medium, and to show my mum as an incredible representative of this art that's only 100 years old."

Following the many celebrations of Bergman's life, however, Rossellini says that she "would like to not work" for a while. For Rossellini, though, that not working doesn't exclude tackling yet another ambitious project. She intends to take the next few months off "so that I can write a new monologue, a new film series," she says. Will it be in the vein of the kinky, oddly educational Green Porno? She won't give specifics, only that it will focus on animal intelligence.

Fittingly, she has a role as a talking hamster in the Canadian drama Closet Monster, which has its premiere Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival, and can be seen with Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro in David O. Russell's forthcoming mobster romp Joy, inspired by the life of female gangster Joy Mangano (played by Lawrence). Rossellini has yet to see a final cut of the film, which drops Christmas Day, but quips that her small part "might be very small" post-editing. Yet from the way she talks about the film, it's likely a contender for the inevitable Isabella Rossellini commemorative retrospective to follow when she, like all mortals, eventually leaves this Earth.

Isabella Rossellini on International Tribute to Her Mother, Ingrid Bergman