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Film star Isabella Rossellini is also a star on the Internet. "Green Porno," her series for the Sundance Channel and sundance.com, won two Webby Awards in 2009. Now she's back with another series of short films that she's written, directed and in which she stars. Like "Green Porno," the new films take an unconventional look at the natural world and our accepted notions of it. The new series is called "Mammas," and it deals with animal mothers and what they do for and sometimes to their children. Pat Dowell has more.

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PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: In one episode of "Mammas," Isabella Rossellini appears on screen with a fish on her head.

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ISABELLA ROSSELLINI: I'm a mouthbrooder. I incubate my eggs in my mouth.

DOWELL: She swims through a stage set ocean and deposits her eggs, which look like little oranges, on a rock. Soon, she gets hit in the face with silly string.

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ROSSELLINI: My films are comical films. They are made to laugh at. They are comical and scientifically correct. They are only these two things.

DOWELL: It turns out that the actor and filmmaker is studying for a master's degree in animal behavior. She learned that women biologists are questioning the conventional wisdom that mothers are universally self-sacrificing.

ROSSELLINI: And so they looked at all the animals to see if this was consistent behavior in all the species. And, of course, it isn't. And I found that research to be fascinating but also quite amusing. And that was the beginning of "Mammas." And I contacted my Marlene Zuk.

MARLENE ZUK: Sure she wanted somebody who would check on whether she was portraying an animal as, you know, having wings when it didn't or, you know, the wrong number of legs or something like that.

DOWELL: Marlene Zuk is an author and biologist at the University of Minnesota.

ZUK: But I think a lot more of it, 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 is were.

DOWELL: To get at the essence of hamsters, Isabella Rossellini dawns a furry suit and pulls little babies from between her legs, a litter of 10.

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ROSSELLINI: How am I going to feed them all?

DOWELL: She decides she can't.

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ROSSELLINI: This one is so small and skinny. What will be of it?

DOWELL: She eats it and another one.

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ROSSELLINI: Eight is enough.

DOWELL: The cheeky informality and the homemade look of the films are intentional, says Gregorio Franchetti, a young Italian filmmaker whom Rossellini describes as her strong right arm on the series.

GREGORIO FRANCHETTI: 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.

DOWELL: It's a look that characterized Rossellini's previous series for Sundance, "Green Porno," which, despite the provocative title, is a similarly scientific look at the sexuality of other species and the threats they face. Her films all employ a tiny crew. She considers that essential to the way she works.

ROSSELLINI: You know, I'm in a leotard all day long with a fish head. I can't have 150 people look, make comments, embarrassing me. It's very important that we work all together, like around the table, and you see everybody's face and everybody's collaborating. It really helps on shyness and embarrassment.

DOWELL: It's hard to think of her as ever being shy if you've seen her in "Blue Velvet" or the experimental movies of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, who Rossellini says encouraged her current work. For his part, Maddin says the short films are Isabella Rossellini.

GUY MADDIN: She's bawdy, sometimes. At other times, she reminds you of old movie stars, of contemporary glamour, of some potty-mouthed kid. She's just 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.

DOWELL: Maddin notes that both he and Rossellini share a closeness to their mothers. She acknowledges her mother, film icon Ingrid Bergman, was often criticized in the 1950s for leaving her children to go make movies.

ROSSELLINI: You know, 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. 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 of the family, it's not something that is proven to be natural but is maybe culturally induced. And maybe she would have been relieved from any guilt.

DOWELL: Isabella Rossellini's father was legendary Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. Paternal instincts will be the subject of her next series. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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