LOS ANGELES — Isabella Rossellini’s search for the meaning of maternal instinct in “Mammas” looks at nine animals, where things like polygamy, lying and dying convince her that “anything goes.”
The program timed to air today on the Sundance Channel is just the latest offbeat offering from the model-actress, who gets in costume and plays the parts of the animals.
In “Mammas,” Rossellini dresses as a mother spider, wasp, hamster, toad, cuckoo, dunnock, oil beetle, piping plover and cichlid fish to show how each brings her young into the world.
The shorts also launch today on Sundancechannel.com.
“Mammas” is suggestive, but the episodes are mostly for comedy and entertainment, Rossellini said. They are also food for thought, the 60-year-old New Yorker says.
Several women biologists, challenging popular thinking about maternal instinct, recently studied how animals behave, Rossellini said. Many people believe all mothers are altruistic, nurturing, protective and unselfish, but they are not, she said.
“Some mothers eat their babies if there are too many in a litter, other mothers abandon their babies into other birds’ nests for mothers who are not even of the same species to raise; mothers do not get pregnant always with the belly, but sometimes hold the babies in their mouth — they are cheek pregnant or back pregnant,” she said.
“This is what I am telling in the films. I’m saying that conventional idea we have that mothers are ready to sacrifice themselves has been proven incorrect.”
Rossellini is enrolled at Hunter College in New York working toward a master’s degree in animal behavior. “I have been interested in animals since I was a child.”
“Mammas” didn’t start out as a Mother’s Day project, Rossellini said. It was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February. It usually takes about two months after a debut to get it out, and that happened to be close to Mother’s Day, which seemed like perfect timing, she said.
“Mammas” is the third in a series commissioned by the Sundance Channel and Robert Redford. It started with animal sex in “Green Porno” the on Sundance Channel (which was also screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah) and moved to animal seduction in “Green Porno Seduce Me.” In all of them, she plays the animals in bright costumes and demonstrates what happens. It has endless room to grow, Rossellini said.
The actress (“Blue Velvet,” “Death Becomes Her”) and former model writes the scripts, sketches costumes she thinks will work, narrates, directs and plays the animals in every short.
The “Seduce Me” segment was on display in 2010 at the The Wolfsonian-Florida International University Museum in Miami. “People were completely seduced by the series,” museum director Cathy Leff said. “From a scientific point of view, we learned a lot. She did a lot of research about mating. It was humorous and incredibly charming.”
There’s a playful connection to Mother’s Day, Sundance Channel General Manager Sarah Barnett said. “Isabella gives you a different perspective and a sort of delicious new way of engaging with the idea of being a mother.”
“Mammas” is a work of visual seduction told by “a distinct and remarkable storyteller. She has this unorthodox form and at the same time it’s incredibly accessible and surprisingly funny,” Barnett added.
Rossellini is the daughter of Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini.
Mother’s Day in Italy when Rossellini was a child wasn’t a big deal. The big holiday was Woman’s Day on March 1. “It was not just for mothers but for all women,” she said.
Despite two children of her own and dual citizenship, things haven’t changed much for Rossellini. “I am lucky if my children say ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ and bring me some flowers,” she said.
Rossellini did pay tribute to her mother in the “Mammas” story of the piping plover.
It starts with Rossellini (as a human) doing a dying scene on stage and getting pelted by tomatoes. It switches to her as a piping plover, fooling a fox by pretending to have a broken wing and leading the predator away from her nest.
The camera returns to the human, where it appears more tomatoes are hurled at Rossellini from the moving paper audience. She hides behind a stage curtain and says: “If I were as talented at pretending as the piping plover, I would be a Sarah Bernhardt, an Ingrid Bergman.”
With so much focus on motherhood, does Rossellini have a message for “Mammas” viewers? “Yes,” she said: “Happy Mother’s Day.”