Born in a bourgeois family living in Rome, he lived in via Ludovisi, where Mussolini had his first Roman hotel in 1922 when Fascism obtained power on Italy. Young Rossellini's fascination for "black shirts" has been repeatedly denied, but never completely.
Rossellini's father built the first Roman "cinema" (a theatre in which films could be shown), granting Roberto an unlimited free pass; Roberto started frequenting the cinema at an early age. When his father died, he worked as a soundmaker for films, and for a certain time he experienced all the accessory jobs related to the creation of a film, gaining competence in each field.
In 1938 he made his first documentary, Prélude à l'aprés-midi d'un faune. After this essay, he was called to assist Goffredo Alessandrini in making Luciano Serra pilota, one of most successful Italian films of the first half of century. Then in 1940 he was called to assist Francesco De Robertis on Uomini sul Fondo. His close friendship with Vittorio Mussolini, son of Il Duce and responsible for cinema, has been interpreted as a possible reason for having been preferred to other apprentices.
Some authors describe the first part of his career as a sequence of trilogies.
His first feature film, La Nave Bianca (1941) was sponsored by the audiovisual propaganda centre of Navy Department and is the first work in Rossellini's so-called Fascist Trilogy, together with Un pilota ritorna (1942) and Uomo dalla Croce (1943). To this period belongs his friendship and cooperation with Federico Fellini and Aldo Fabrizi.
When the Fascist regime ended in 1943, just two months after the liberation of Rome, Rossellini was already preparing Roma città aperta (with Fellini assisting on the script and Fabrizi playing the role of the priest), which he self-produced (most of the money came from credits and loans). This dramatic film was an immediate success. Rossellini had started now his so-called Neorealistic Trilogy, the second title of which was Paisà, produced with non-professional actors, and the third Germania anno zero (1946), sponsored by a French producer and filmed in Berlin's French sector. In Berlin too Rossellini preferred non-actors, but he was unable to find a face he found "interesting"; he placed his camera in the center of a town square, as he did for Paisà, but was surprised when nobody came to watch.
As he declared in an interview, in order to really create the character that one has in mind, it is necessary for the director to engage in a battle with his actor which usually ends with submitting to the actor's wish. Since I do not have the desire to waste my energy in a battle like this, I only use professional actors occasionally. One of the reasons of success has been supposed to be the fact that Rossellini rewrote the scriptss according to the non-professional actors' feelings and histories. Regional accent, dialect, and costumes were shown in the film how they were in real life.
After his Neorealist Trilogy, Rossellini produced two films now classified as the Transitional films: L'Amore (with Anna Magnani) and La macchina ammazzacattivi, on the capability of cinema to portray reality and truth (with recalls of Commedia del Arte).
1948 is the year of love: Rossellini receives a letter from a foreign actress proposing herself for working with him:
- Dear Mr. Rossellini,
- I saw your films Open City and Paisan, and enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only "ti amo", I am ready to come and make a film with you.
This affair caused a great scandal in some countries (Bergman and Rossellini were both married to other people); the scandal intensified when the two started having children (one of whom is Isabella Rossellini).
The rest of his filmography includes:
- Francesco, giullare di Dio - 1950
- Otello - 1952
- I sette peccati capitali (episode: Invidia) - 1952
- La Gioconda - 1953
- Siamo donne (episode: Una voce umana. Il miracolo) - 1953
- Dov'è la libertà? - 1953
- La figlia di Iorio - 1954
- La paura - 1954
- Giovanna d'Arco al rogo - 1954
- Viaggio in Italia - 1954
- Amori di mezzo secolo (episode: Napoli '43) - 1954
- India senza limiti - 1958
- Il generale Della Rovere - 1959
- Viva l'Italia - 1960
- Uno sguardo dal ponte - 1961
- Torino nei cent'anni - 1961
- Vanina Vanini - 1961
- Era notte a Roma - 1961
- I carabinieri - 1962
- Benito Mussolini - 1962
- Anima nera - 1962
- Rogopag (episode: Illibatezza) - 1963
- L'età del ferro - 1964
- La presa del potere da parte di Luigi XIV - 1967
- Idea di un'isola. Sicilia - 1967
- Atti degli apostoli - 1968
- Socrate - 1970
- La forza e la ragione: interview with Salvador Allende - 1971
- Rice University - 1971
- Blaise Pascal - 1971
- Agostino d'Ippona - 1972
- Cartesius - 1973
- L'età di Cosimo de' Medici - 1973
- Concerto per Michelangelo - 1974
- The World Population - 1974
- Anno uno - 1974
- Il messia - 1976
- Beaubourg - 1977