October 19, 2000
Isabella Rossellini learns Chassidic ways for 'Left Luggage.'
Forget her 28 Vogue magazine covers.
Isabella Rossellini, mit sheitl, is portraying a Chassidic Jewish woman in actor Jeroen Krabbe's post-Holocaust saga, "Left Luggage." It's the most unexpected casting of the season.
It all began when Krabbe. a friend of Rossellini's, approached her with a startling revelation on the set of "Immortal Beloved" five years ago. "I have decided to direct," pronounced the actor, who has appeared in "Crossing Delancey," "The Fugitive" and "Ever After."
The impetus was a book that changed his life: "The Shovel and the Loom" by Carl Friedman, about a child of Holocaust survivors. "Jeroen's mother had a tattoo on he arm, but she never spoke of her experiences in a concentration camp," Rossellini says. "Jeroen grew up Protestant, like his father, in Holland. It was only after reading this book that he wanted to discover his Jewish culture."
Based on Friedman's novel, "Left Luggage" tells of a girl who learns to understand her family "baggage" after going to work for a Chassidic family. Krabbe wanted Rossellini to play Mrs. Kalman, the wife of a Holocaust survivor. She initially refused.
"Everyone knows I'm Catholic, and I'm Italian, and I'm a model," she explains. "Of course, I later learned that Chassidic women can be very glamorous. But origi-nally, I just thought people would think I was miscast. No matter how well I did the role, I feared that the sight of me playing a Chassid would just make people laugh."
Krabbe, however, was persistent. One tactic was mailing Rossellini Pearl Abraham's semiautobiographical novel, "The Romance Reader," about a young Chassidic woman who tests the limits of her society. The actress was intrigued. "I identified with her rebelliousness, her desire to define her own life," says the actress, who also fled an overprotective childhood home to make her way among strangers.
Rossellini telephoned Abraham, and the two women met for lunch in Manhattan. Over dessert, the actress popped the question: "Do you laugh at the idea of me playing a Chassid?" Abraham pointed out that Rossellini portrayed a masochist in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," in which she appeared in an infamous nude scene. She pointed out that the actress most probably would not balk at playing a murderer. "So why are you uncomfortable with the notion of playing a Chassid?" Abraham queried.
Rossellini decided to accept the role and discovered that she innately understands the concept of "Left Luggage": how a family's past can haunt the present. Her mother, actress Ingrid Bergman, was reviled and banned from Hollywood after deserting her husband and daughter to marry Isabella's father, the Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini. After her parents divorced when she was 3, Isabella and her fraternal twin sister, Ingrid, grew up in a Roman villa across the street from her father, his new wife and children. Helping to raise the siblings were various grandmothers and aunts who told disturbing stories about their experiences during World War II.
"I vividly remember the continuing fear of starvation, especially from the old people," Rossellini says. "They always hid food because they said they never knew when the war might return."
Rossellini, as a child, never played in open fields, for fear of stepping upon a mine left over from the war. The actress, however, had never before portrayed a Jewish character, much less an Orthodox one, so she required four coaches to help her with "Left Luggage." There was a coach to teach her Yiddish, one for Hebrew, another to teach her to speak English with a German accent and yet another to show her the proper body language.
The body language specialist, a Chassidic Jew named Alex, was himself something of a rebel with his long hair and jeans, Rossellini recalls. He taught her to automatically touch the mezuzah upon entering a room; to close a Hebrew book from right to left; and never to offer her hand to an Orthodox man. Rossellini asked him whether he had played with girls as a child and whether he was allowed to have dinner alone with a woman friend (no and no). When she asked about the barrier she found in the prop bed, she learned a bit about the Jewish family purity laws.
Rossellini, who lunched with Chassidic women at a kosher deli on location in Belgium, says she was surprised to discover that ultra-Orthodox women can be stylish. "One woman used to wear all sorts of different wigs," she recalls. "One day she looked like Brigitte Bardot, the next like Louise Brooks." How did the actress find wearing a sheitl? "Itchy," she laughs.
Now, at 48, she says, she notices that fewer film roles come her way. In response, she's launched her own makeup line, Manifesto, and she's grateful for roles like Mrs. Kalman in "Left Luggage." The film left its mark on the Italian Catholic actress. "When I returned from the shoot, I'd see a Chassidic family in the street and I'd say, 'Hello,'" she recalls. "They'd just look at me, puzzled, and I'd remind myself, 'I'm not in character anymore!'"