Film star Isabella Rossellini has a fish on her head.
She is a mouthbrooder, she explains, helpfully — meaning a fish who incubates her eggs in her mouth.
Rossellini's newest Web series is Mammas, an unconventional look at the natural world and our accepted notions of it.
"My films are comical films. They are made to laugh at," Rossellini tells NPR. "They are comical — and scientifically correct."
That was true, too, for her previous series for Sundance, Green Porno — which despite the provocative title was a scientific look at sexuality in other species and the threats they face. Green Porno won two Webby Awards in 2009.
Mammas, which Rossellini wrote, directed and stars in, deals with animal mothers and what they do for — and to — their children.
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In addition to becoming a Web star for a new generation, the actress and filmmaker — star of Blue Velvet and White Nights, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini — is studying for a master's degree in animal behavior. She discovered that female biologists have been questioning long-held conventional wisdom about mothers' being universally self-sacrificing.
"They looked back and looked at all the animals to see if this was consistent behavior in all the species. And of course it isn't," Rossellini explains. "And I found that research to be fascinating, but also quite amusing. And that was the beginning of Mammas."
She enlisted author Marlene Zuk, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, as an expert consultant on the project.
"She wanted somebody who would check on whether she was portraying an animal as having wings when it didn't or the wrong number of legs or something like that," Zuk says. More important, "and what I thought was so wonderful about the films, is that she wanted someone to make sure that she really got what the animals were doing — that she was really true to their essence, as it were."
To get at the essence of hamsters, for example, Isabella Rossellini dons a furry suit and pulls little babies from between her legs.
"How will I feed them all?" Rossellini asks as her hamster-mother alter-ego. "This one is so small and skinny, what will become of it?"
Then she eats it, declaring that eight babies is enough. (Welcome to nature, which isn't always fluffy and kind.)
'I'm In A Leotard All Day Long'
The cheeky informality of the Mammas shorts, as well as their homemade look, is intentional.
"Isabella always says, 'I like to do films that, when my audience sees them, they can think they can do them themselves in the kitchen,' " says Italian filmmaker Gregorio Franchetti.
Rossellini describes Franchetti as her strong right arm on the series, which employs a tiny crew. She believes the small size of her team is essential.
"You know, I'm in a leotard all day long with a fish head," she explains. "I can't have 150 people look, make comments, embarrassing me.
"It's very important that we work all together, like around a table, and you see everybody's face and everybody's collaborating. It really helps on shyness and embarrassment."
It is hard to think of Rosellini as shy, of course, especially if you've seen her in Blue Velvet or in the experimental work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, who Rossellini says encouraged her current work.
"She's bawdy sometimes," Maddin tells NPR. "At other times she reminds you of old movie stars, of contemporary glamour, of some potty-mouthed kid." These films, Maddin says, are Isabella Rossellini.
"She's so relaxed about the way the body works, the way our libidos work. And she's finally decided to make it the subject of her own work."
Maddin notes that both he and Rossellini share a closeness to their mothers. She says her mother, the Oscar-winning star of Casablanca and Notorious and Intermezzo and more, was often criticized in the 1950s as insufficiently maternal.
"This film made me think of my mom, because of course she had a very big career at the time where women didn't have a career, and she was really criticized for it," Rossellini says.
"And I thought, oh, I wish she was alive so that she would know that this idea that women are made to sacrifice and to be servant of their children or their husband or their family — it's not something that is proven to be natural, but is maybe culturally induced. And maybe she would have been also relieved from any guilt."
As for the influence of her father, the great Italian neo-realist director? Well, Rossellini's next series, she says, will be about paternal instincts. How realistic it will be is anyone's guess.