Arts, Culture & Media

Isabella Rossellini's ‘Mammas’

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Isabella Rossellini’s unsentimental look at motherhood in nature.

Isabella Rossellini’s unsentimental look at motherhood in nature.


Courtesy of Sundance TV

Isabella Rossellini’s "Mammas" is an unsentimental look at motherhood — very unsentimental. The mothers in this series of film shorts take multiple husbands, abandon their young, even cannibalize them. And they take maternal self-sacrifice to an extreme, letting their hungry young devour them. 

The mothers in these films are, respectively, a dunnock, a cuckoo, a hamster and a spider. As in her previous series, the celebrated "Green Porno," Rossellini wrote, directed and stars as the creatures, setting herself in imaginative scenarios and costumes she describes as “ridiculous.” (Portraying a brown toad, she wears what seems to be a trash bag.)

While the videos are a far cry from David Attenborough’s nature docs, Rossellini’s interest in animals is serious, and as each mother explains her child rearing strategy, Rossellini has her facts straight. Rossellini is working on her master’s degree in animal behavior at Hunter College.

“As a semi-retired actress, like any retired person, you always fear boredom," she says. "As I worked less as a model and an actress because of age, I was always interested in animal behavior, and I thought I’d go back and study it.”

The inspiration for “Mammas” came from the work of evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk. Zuk wrote that self-sacrifice was not the basis of maternal instinct — a commonly held anthropomorphism — but rather good management of resources. Which might, if you were a hamster, include eating a pup or two from the litter, so you are well-nourished to nurse the others.

“I felt relief to know that there are many strategies to perpetuate your genes,” Rossellini tells Kurt Andersen.

(Originally aired May 10, 2013)

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