New York Daily News
Sept. 19, 2000
Rossellini's Act of Faith
Sloughing off her glamorous image, she plays Hasidic housewife in Left Luggage

When the movie Left Luggage finally got a U.S. screening at Lincoln Center's Jewish Film Festival last year, star Isabella Rossellini decided to celebrate with a party at her Manhattan home.

After all, making the movie, which opens Friday, had been a tough experience. Raising money for the independent production, an affecting drama about Jewish family secrets, cultural conflicts and history's healing in 1970s Belgium, had been a struggle.

Isabella Rossellini and Laura Fraser star in Left Luggage. And Rossellini had to think long and hard before letting her old friend Jeroen Krabbe, the Dutch actor who was making his directorial debut with the film, talk her into taking a leading role as a Hasidic wife and mother burdened by a large family, changing times and more than her fair share of sorrow.

"I thought it would be a great idea to serve Jewish-Italian food at the party," says Rossellini, still stunning at 48, in her soft Italian accent. "I spent weeks turning up a recipe here, a recipe there. It was really hard to find them. Then, after all this effort, someone said to me, 'You know, there's a great Jewish-Italian restaurant in the Theater District.'

"I couldn't believe it I've lived in New York since I was 19, and I didn't know of it. There's still so much I don't know about being Jewish."

In fact, the Catholic Rossellini's reluctance to accept a Jewish role, she says, was one of the drags on Left Luggage.

"It took Jeroen a long time to convince me," she says. "I thought that because I'm not Jewish, it wasn't right for me to play a Jew. He worked on me for several years." (In the meantime, they starred together in the TV miniseries The Odyssey with Rossellini as the goddess Athena and in Immortal Beloved.)

Just One Book

It was a contemporary American novel that ultimately changed Rossellini's mind about the role. "Jeroen gave me The Romance Reader, by Pearl Abraham," she says, "and also encouraged me to call her."

Abraham's struggle to break away from her Brooklyn Hasidic upbringing is at the center of a novel that nevertheless paints a tender portrait of her strictly circumscribed youth.

"The novel taught me that different cultures are the way feelings are expressed, but the feelings are the same," Rossellini says, "that there are many differences within the Jewish community."

Left Luggage also stars British actress Laurie Fraser as the truculent, anti-religious young Jewish girl who comes to work for Rossellini's Mrs. Kalman as a baby-sitter. Despite their differences, "Mrs. Kalman and Chaya find their common humanity," Rossellini says. "Sometimes, the differences within a community are where you feel most roused up. By Mrs. Kalman's mere need of a baby-sitter, she doesn't only get help, it opens up her mind and she doesn't see what's different as evil anymore. That's why the film is interesting."

To make her movies even more interesting, Rossellini tries to read and research as much as possible. "Every film brings in a lot of information," she says. "You go to live inside someone else's mind."

But Left Luggage had some extra requirements learning to pronounce Yiddish and Hebrew correctly, cultivating a German-Jewish accent for the Berlin-born Kalman and studying the most subtle gestures, Rossellini says.

Learning Body Yiddish

That meant a "gesture coach" in addition to Yiddish and Hebrew lessons, "to teach me the right body language, like the swaying during prayers, and closing a prayer book from right to left, not left to right. I made that mistake and the coach yelled 'Stop!'"

But the celebrated model and international cosmetics entrepreneur whose recently launched Manifesto line has been a worldwide success insisted on doing her own makeup for the film, tamping down her luminous beauty to capture Kalman's unadorned, careworn features.

"I didn't want anyone to be blamed for the way I looked except me," she says.

Also contributing to her unusually drab appearance is the sheitel - a wig, traditionally worn by strictly observant married Jewish women that she taught herself to adjust just so on film, Rossellini says.

It's a fascination with detail that permeates everything she does, and helped inspire her to take on the manufacturing side of the beauty industry.

"I principally think of myself as working in fashion and cosmetics," she says, "yet when I decided to develop my own line, I didn't realize how much of technology and knowledge and expertise goes into producing just one little box, for instance. I designed everything about Manifesto, but first I had to figure out how every aspect works."

Childhood memories also came into play. Her fragrance, which will be introduced here this winter, recalls summers spent as a girl with her mother, film legend Ingrid Bergman, on a tiny island off the coast of Sweden, where Bergman grew up and later sought refuge in troubled times. Its mix of roses, wildflowers and basil, Rossellini suggests, offers a fresh whiff of the bittersweet past.

It's a scent that might not be out of place wafting through Rossellini's most wrenching scenes in Left Luggage, especially a breathtaking encounter toward the end when Kalman inducts Chaya into a close, closed circle of grief.

"She tears Chaya's collar in the traditional gesture of religious symbolism for mourning," Rossellini says. "She recognizes that the girl is suffering. It's the moment in the film in which two ways of mourning transcend the differences between Mrs. Kalman and the girl."

Such moments made Rossellini proud of her commitment to Left Luggage.

"It's a film with a 'T-rating,'" she says with a gentle smile, "for 'tears.' Mrs. Kalman is able to listen to silence, and understand what it contains."

- Celia McGee

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