By SUE MANNING
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 Mother’s Day 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 on sundancechannel.com on Mother’s Day.
“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 believes.
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,” she said.
“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 really close to Mother’s Day, which seemed like perfect timing, she said.
“Mammas” is the third in a series commissioned by Sundance Channel and Robert Redford. It started with animal sex in “Green Porno” 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.
“They put ‘Green Porno’ on the Internet six years ago and it got millions of hits,” said the actress (“Blue Velvet,” ”Death Becomes Her”) and former model. She writes the scripts, sketches a costume she thinks will work, narrates, directs and plays the animal 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,” she added.
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 story teller. 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.”
She used Bernhardt’s name because she wanted a name that was familiar to people in several countries. She used Bergman’s name “because I thought mom would be offended” if she didn’t.
The simplicity of the bright, handmade costumes and paper props and the complexity of the tech-heavy delivery system added to the appeal of Rossellini’s first two series, Leff said.
She hopes Rossellini will turn to the Wolfsonian if she decides to put “Mammas” on display. “She’s a real provocateur, which we love,” Leff said.
Rossellini has done about 40 shorts now and hopes she can continue to do them. First though is her one-woman biology-themed tour through Europe and the United States in 2014.
The actress lives near Long Island and has two dogs, a cat, chickens and a vegetable garden.
She also volunteers at the nearby Guide Dog Foundation and for a few weeks is fostering a mother dog that just had 10 puppies.
With so much focus on motherhood, does Rossellini have a message for “Mammas” viewers? “Yes,” she said: “Happy Mother’s Day.”