The Last Colony
Interview with filmmaker Parvin Ansary
Don’t miss part one of the
Q: Tell me about the latest film you are working
A: “Beatrice Cenci!” It takes place at the end of
the 16th century. She lived near Piazza Navona in Rome and the same
house is still there. I went to see the house and spent a lot of time
studying its aspects. The times were atrocious in Rome of that day.
People criticize Islam but the Islamic world was much more advanced
and civilized than Europe of the1500’s. Italy became a modern nation
only in the 1860’s.
I am trying to capture how difficult this period was in my film.
The Roman Catholic Church helped to end the Italian Renaissance because
of its fear of the Protestant Reformation and of the spirit of scientific
inquiry that characterized the Renaissance which put man at the center
of the universe rather than God. Also Napoleon contributed to this demotion
of the church and monarchies by exporting the French Revolution to Italy.
Q: Why did Italian cinema die?
A: Italian cinema is dead because none of the young
directors are great like the 5 or 6 great directors of that time. There
were lots of bad films then, too, but there was a core of good directors.
There are no films like the “Dolce Vita” today. Italians have a live
and let live attitude. Mussolini tried to militarize and organize them
but it couldn’t last. The Italians are not militant. The Italians have
a great sense of humor. They are also cynical and don’t expect the best.
In general they are not profound. They are superficial. They like people.
They like to talk about food.
Really, I have encountered Italian travelers upon their return from
places like India and Hawaii and all they talk about is the food, the
cuisine they experienced. Italians eat a lot of food, take a lot of
holidays and have more parties than most other societies. I mean there
are obviously lots of intellectuals and artists in Italy but in general
Italians are more political and not very sincere. Nobody talks about
communism or fascism anymore. Not like their films from that time of
the 40’s and ’50’s. Communism is silent now and not a big factor. The
culture is still socialist. Russian film was an important influence
for its melodrama. How many times have we all seen that scene of the
empty baby carriage going down the steps over and over and over from
The labor party is still alive in Italy. Italians went from fascism
to socialism. There was a stalemate between the church and communism.
Even the Italian communist leaders were not of the proletariat but were
the radical chic, wearing Yves St. Laurent clothes and Ferragamo shoes.
My neighbor the communist film director Carlo Lizzani (“Celluloid,”
1996 and “Mussolini, The Last Act.”) was very bourgeois and used to
drive around in a Ferrari. It’s not like this anymore.
Q: What about the rise of feminism in Italy?
A: Feminism was very strong in Italy in 1972 and
73. Divorce was legalized. The Minister of Education was a woman and
there were women judges, congressmen and professors. They changed many
the laws to help women. We women are more direct and more honest than
men. It is harder for a woman to be a crook than a man or to start a
war for that matter.
In the days when I became a film director, it was considered scandalous.
There were not many women directors at all back then. The only other
Italian woman director I knew at that time was Liliana Cavani (“Night
Porter,” 1973) and she dressed very soberly, like a man. I was too showy
for that time and was resented by a lot of male directors.
Now women are wearing make up and following fashion trends but for
centuries women were denied education, married off young. Women had
brains and lots of potential which was denied in the past. Many women
in Italy for centuries were sent to convents by their own fathers who
wanted to save the inheritance for their eldest sons rather than spend
it on wedding dowries to the benefit of some son in law outsider. Now
many convents are empty. Religion has now become fashionable; no longer
really spiritual, with role models like Richard Gere (with his flirtations
with Buddhism and the Dalai Lama.)
America sets trends and fashions. Europe looks to the USA as a role
model. TV is replacing social life. Family life is not like before as
it was portrayed in Fellini’s “Amarcord” with the family members all
together and full of passion and affection. Modern technology has separated
people from each other.
Q: So what are your past times?
A: Well for one, I don’t like to gossip or watch
soap operas. But at least the virtual gossip of soaps is better than
real gossip in the sense that actual gossip can really hurt and ruin
people. A lot of people these days read romance novels and pulp fiction;
throw away books to escape from their problems. I myself like to reread
the great novels to see how my impressions have changed from reading
them, say ten years earlier. I don’t want to lose time on stuff that
doesn’t make me think!
Q: What did you think about 9-11?
A: I think that many Americans don’t know about
the pain of others and don’t believe in the suffering of others, of
non-Americans. Revenge is not good because it only generates more violence.
The USA is not going to fix Iran by invasion.
Q: What do you think about Islam?
A: Did you know that historically many cities in
Iran resisted Islam for 400 years. They had to pay much more tax for
being non Moslem to their conquerors. Despite the negative propaganda
of today, Islam actually helped to create a renaissance in Iran producing
great scholars like Avicenna and Ferdowsi and many others from 1200
It was really a two way street. Islam benefited greatly from its
exposure to Persian culture and the encounter of the Islamic Empire
with all its many cultural influences from Spain, Egypt, Syria, Turkey,
the Balkans and Hungary, gave a lot of culture to Persia influencing
the likes of Razzi, Farabi and Ferdowsi. You know there are 1 billion
400 million Moslems in the world, the vast majority of whom are peace
loving. The fanatics represent a very small minority. Propaganda is
creating a lot of anti Islamic sentiment these days and persecution
of Moslems in Europe and the United States which I find personally very
I don’t want to see Iran bombed by anyone. I can’t stand Persians
who want to see Iran invaded by the USA. They forget that the USA and
Europe sold Iraq all the weapons. Many of the soldiers in the Iran Iraq
war on both sides went into the military to feed their families.
You can’t recreate a situation in Iran of 20 years ago! After bombing
it, then what? Nothing stays the same. Stagnant water stinks! Nobody
wants to think about or act upon political ideals anymore. I think however
that Bush has finally understood after Iraq that he can’t go it alone
and needs the U.N.
Remember that history is written by the victors. The vanquished even
a great civilization like the Carthaginians have been completely forgotten.
The historic greatness of Iran has been forgotten. Do you know that
I still hate Alexander The Great for attacking Persia and burning Persepolis?
He attacked my country! Besides Alexander was not really a Greek, he
was a Macedonian and not really the heir of classical Greece. Napoleon
copied Hamurabi. Alexander copied Cyrus and Darius.
In the West, Alexander is considered a big conqueror but in reality
he usurped the Empire that Cyrus and Darius had already set up. The
Greeks didn’t want empire, they wanted a republic and they didn’t want
Alexander to be emperor of Persia.
That imbecile Dino De Laurentis produced the film:” Alexander” in
which he cast Leonardo De Caprio as Alexander. It was based on a book
called “Alexander” by Manfreddi which itself was good. The book was
full of humanity showing everyday occurrences, arguments and also about
Roxanna falling completely in love with Alexander. Alexander had married
both daughters of Darius and Roxanna ended up killing them both. Manfreddi
was independent and not influenced by anyone else’s opinions or prejudiced
by the burning of Persepolis.
The Persians civilized the Mongols and the Timurids. No one ever
conquered the Zagros Mountains. The Greeks eventually left Iran and
moved to Syria. Iran has a long complicated history.
Q: Let us go back to the discussion of Italian cinema.
A: Italian cinema invented Neo-Realism after the
War. They didn’t have a lot of resources at that time. They made great
and beautiful films out of collective sadness, fear and poverty, especially
fear. These conditions created great films not the times of plenty.
Mussolini’s fascism left the Italians hated after WW II. Rome became
the open city and liked the Marshall Plan. Italian films were created
out of extreme poverty. People didn’t want war anymore. Italy got lots
of benefits from their film industry.
There were about 10 directors of which 4 or 5 were truly great at
that time. It was the era of Neo Realism. Visconti had his own “other”
politics. Fellini dealt in fantasy. Fellini never left Cinecitta. He
never filmed on location. He did everything in the studio. He created
his own fantasy world. He loved Cinecitta… Rossellini got pissed off
at Italy and went to France. And there was Pier Paolo Passolini, who
was first a poet and then a director.
When prosperity returned to Italy, the era of “Italian Comedy” arose.
At the time it was considered 2nd rate but now intellectuals consider
it 1st rate. Then after that, it was “Spaghetti Westerns” and Cecil
Demille type films about Hercules and the like. Now only a few good
films are being made. Everyone watches TV now, not cinema. No one goes
out anymore. People are afraid of crime, traffic hassles, etc…no one
Dino De Laurentis went to America and remade: “King Kong” and Carlo Ponti
went to the USA and produced Doctor Zhivago and never came back
to Italy. When they left they took away a lot of Italy’s production
capacity. There had also been a real synergy between Ponte and script
writers like Cesare Zavattini,( “Il Tetto,”1956 and “I Misteri Di Roma,”
1963.) The producers and script writers needed each other to produce
such works like:” Miracle in Milan” and “The Bicycle Thief.” When these
producers left for Hollywood, the great works in Italian cinema ended.
The rest of the Italian producers who made little films were not
great. They were not educated. They were ex butchers with nothing to
say; no more genius left, nothing riveting. There was a lack of energy.
Film takes a lot of money and resources which are more available in
the USA. The US films went for comedy to cover over the war. Musicals
like Carmen Miranda and the like were made to cover over the sadness
of World War II.
Q: What do you think about Hollywood?
A: Hollywood films are well made. I love American
cinema. In childhood I only saw American movies. In those days of the
’50’s people had manners, politeness. Men were courtly. They bought
women presents, pulled out their chairs, opened car doors for them.
During the time of Roosevelt and Truman there was racial discrimination
and there were no black Americans in films except as waiters.
The films portrayed houses as always very well furnished and in imitation
of England or New England. Everything was portrayed as perfect, ideal;
children were always beautiful. This made an impression on me in my
childhood. US films today show lots of people kissing and hugging but
for real romance it is only the old American films….I loved Katherine
Hepburn for her feminism and her great comical dialogue with actors
like Cary Grant. I loved Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” Those are jewels
that we don’t see anymore. That film kept you riveted in your seat for
I like French and English film too and they have their charm but
they are different from that golden era of American film also.
Q: So what do you think about cinema today and about
the contemporary era?
A: There is too much sound, too much computer graphics.
The youth like it…all the computer games. The internet replaces family
and extended family. In their free time they go to technology. It is
their generation…computers. But I say that as long as we can think
that we are relevant and not passé. The brain is everything! You can
be relevant at whatever age you reach as long as your brain is working.
I pray not to go senile.
I am not opposed to change. I think it is marvelous that things change.
Yesterday there was a massive power failure through out Italy and it
made me think about how wonderful electricity is and what it must have
been like to get electricity for the first time back at the beginning
of the Industrial Age. There is always newness with each generation.
This is life; life goes on.
There are today some profound American producers and directors in
America like Copolla and Scorcese. Scorcese claims that Rossellini taught
him. Anyway I love their films! The latest technology and capabilities
are new and need time to be digested, to become normal and more selective
Q: That reminds me of the early privatization of
TV in Italy when after decades of repression by the church and ownership
by the state they went crazy with pornography.
Q: Parvin, if you permit me, did I ever tell you
the story about my own grandfather who invented water softeners? He
used to visit us in Italy from time to time when he was in Genoa to
work on the water desalinization systems for the Italian cruise ship
line on vessels like the “Michel Angelo” and the “Leonardo Da Vinci.”
A: Did you inherit his fortune?
Q: No, unfortunately he divorced my grandmother
when my dad was only 14 and invested all his emotions, time and resources
in his step children and his step grandchildren. So in a sense I was
disinherited decades before I was even born.
A: We are all ripped off in one way or another,
every single one of us human beings….don’t worry, you are not alone….
Q: Well let’s get back to cinema. I think this is
a very interesting theme about adversity creating great art while prosperity
creates decadence. I found a similar theme in the book:” Reading Lolita
in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi when she talks about Nabakov, postulating
that when an idea like communism or Islamic fundamentalism is forced
upon reality then reality as you knew it or want it to be becomes an
idea. That is a situation in which, horrible as it is, a lot of great
artistic achievement can be produced.
A: I agree. However I do not mean to suggest that
there are no current great Italian directors. There was: “Intolerance:
The Story of Griffith” by the Taviani Brothers and there are Oscar winning
films by Giuseppe Tornatore like “Cinema Paradiso,” “Everybody’s Fine”
and “The Star Maker” and Bertolucci has won Oscars too.
Q: By the way, what did the Italians think about
the Nobel Peace Prize going to Shirin Ebadi?
A: Many Italians were mad that the Pope didn’t get
it but I say, the Pope is supposed to make peace his business and he
doesn’t need a prize for that. The Italian leftwing were very happy
for her! I think that there will come a day when the President of Iran
will be a woman!
Q: So let’s talk for a few minutes about some of
the film celebrities whom you have known personally?
A: I came into lots of contact with Vittorio De
Sica when he was still mostly acting at Cine Citta. Whenever he saw
me he would always call out: “Long Live Persia!” De Sica was very polite.
While he was making:” Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” he introduced me
to Marcello Mastroiani who was a wonderful human being. De Sica’s son
Manuel was a musician and a good friend of mine. He always went with
me to see Horror films to get the chills esp. in the summer heat.
Q: You’re kidding! I never realized that you liked
A: Oh Yes. I love Horror films…all of Hitchcock.
My all time favorite Horror film is “Shining” with Jack Nicholson.
Q: No way!
A: Yes! I have seen “Shining” at least 15 times
and it still scares me every time. I have to cover my eyes. I never
stop being scared by this film. I love the end of the film with the
old photos from the ’20’s. I love “Vertigo” also with Kim Novak and
Q: Did you know that that was filmed right near
where I live in Northern California? There were scenes from San Francisco
but the mission with the tower was San Juan Bautista, which is about
45 minutes south from where I live. That tunnel of Eucalyptus trees
they kept showing in the movie is still there on Highway 101 and in
fact I love driving through it because it smells like cough drops. Hitchcock
use to live in the Bay Area. His “Birds” was shot north of here at a
town on the ocean called “Bodega Bay.” So how did you develop this passion
for Horror films?
A: When I was six years old I went to see: “The
Wizard of Oz!” with Judy Garland. That was my first scary film. I don’t
know why but I have always liked them from the time I was a little girl.
I would like to make a Horror film around here where I live. You
should see the woods around me when they become filled with fog! And
there is an old castle on the top of a mountain peak you can see from
Q: Well if you do decide to make that Horror film
then I definitely want a part in it!
A: Surely! Well let’s see…as far as greats that
I knew there was Gian Maria Volonte who made all those Spaghetti Westerns
with Clint Eastwood and there was Alberto Sordi. Sordi really made me
laugh. I loved his sense of humor. You know when Sordi died they made
it a national holiday and closed down everything in Italy. There was
a huge parade that went right through Piazza Del Popolo complete with
airplanes trailing banners over head.
I was a very close friend of Anna Maria Pier Angeli and I was very
sad when she died (Suicide in Hollywood.) She was my neighbor in Rome
and in the evening she would come over to my house for cocktails and
tell me the story of her life. She had been married to the singer Vic
Demone at one point. She had debuted in a French film called:” Tomorrow
is Too Late” which gained her enough recognition to be picked up by
a 7 year contract with Hollywood.
Parvin and Anna Maria PierAngeli on the left.
She went there with her mother who was very bourgeois and a “stage
mom…” There she shortened her stage name to Pier Angeli to make it
easier for the Americans and she acted in films with Paul Newman and
also she fell in love with James Dean. Her mother did not like James
Dean. She thought he was a slob. When he came over to their house in
Hollywood, he would always wear the same dirty jeans, put his feet up
on the furniture and go into the refrigerator uninvited and help himself
to their food and drink milk out of the carton. Her mom did not like
Dean’s bad manners and she was the one who put a stop to the romance.
All these people lived in Rome in those days and we use to see each
other at parties all the time. Anthony Quinn and Elizabeth Taylor lived
in Rome then too. It’s not like that anymore. I don’t want to know any
of the new players. It is not that I think I am better than anyone else.
We are not better than others and in fact it is we who become worse,
not the others. We were just more social when we were younger; it’s
Q: I would like to mention here that not only was
Hitchcock living and filming around Northern California but John Steinbeck
lived in Salinas, 45 minutes south of me and it was during the filming
of either the Steinbeck story:” East of Eden” or “Grapes of Wrath” on
location that James Dean died in a car crash near Salinas. So back to
the interview: What do you do to pass your time now?
A: Now I must have periods of intellectual solitude
rather than gregariousness. I spend time alone in Rome seeking out evidence
of the Renaissance in architecture and artifacts. Today’s actors are
superficial and undignified. I knew Luchino Visconti from a distance.
He was serious and aloof… a count. He was influenced by the German
romantics, Expressionists and authors like Thomas Mann with his struggle
between the timeless spiritual, mythological, mystical and artistic
perceptions versus the contemporary reality, comfort and familiarity
of day to day bourgeois life. (“Death in Venice,” 1971 adapted from
I also knew Antonioni quite well. These days Michelangelo Antonioni
(“The Passenger” 1975) due to strokes can now no longer even speak and
he directs films by writing. I know a lot of people still but everything
has changed. Rome used to be like a living room. It was personal and
comfortable. Remember when we would go to Rosati’s Bar in Piazza Del
Popolo? We would always see someone like Alberto Moravia there or Pier
Paolo Passolini. There were always a minimum of 2 or 3 important film
directors in there. Now it is crowded with strangers and only the nouveau
riche and it is all about politics.
The world changes yes but we are too crowded now. Everyone is “more
important” than you. No more limits or boundaries. People know everything
but not profoundly, only superficially and everything is political;
not as before…. I hate trends and fashion. Trends exist to make money
for the producers. Trends are not profound.
There are a few of the new generation of Italian directors who have
won many prizes like: Nanni Moretti and Gabriele Salvatores who have
had their works nominated for Oscars 8 or 9 times. Salvatores’s “Mediterraneo”
was sent to the Oscar committee… I keep up with my old friends. I
think it is superficial to know too many people. Fewer is better.
The American Director Paul Bartel was a very close friend to me in
film school. I went to visit him in New York City one time when he was
making a film with Krzysztof Zanussi (“A Year in the Quiet Sun,” 1985.)
Paul showed me all around NYC and took me to movie theatres in Harlem
where we could see all the little street urchins making all kinds of
noise in the audience when they got carried away by the film, which
reminded me of Tehran. Paul had me over to his house for dinner in New
Jersey at that time and he cooked everything himself. He was a good
He died 3 or 4 years ago under mysterious circumstances. He was gay.
One time I remember he came to see me in Rome at twelve o’clock midnight.
Paul Bartel made a lot of movies in Hollywood too like “Escape from
Q: I know. I loved his first film which was really
low budget and dark humor: “Eating Raoul!” in which he directed and
acted. He was a very funny man. He had a lot of Cameo appearances in
movies too like “Caddy Shack II.” He was great! He made about 50 independent
A: You know in all these years I have only had two
really close American friends and that would be Paul Bartel and You!
Q: I am honored. So what ever became of our friend
Romina Power? (Tyrone Power and Linda Christians older daughter.)
A: Romina left that rock singer Al Bano whom we
Persians nick named “Albaloo!” and for a time she became a painter.
She had a daughter who at age 22 ran away to the USA and disappeared.
The daughter went to live with some drug addicts in New Orleans for
a time and then she disappeared.
Q: I am sorry to hear it. It seems a far cry from
those innocent days when she and I and her sister Taryn would meet at
that club: Helio Cabala outside Rome for the tea dances. Do you remember
how Anthony Quinn was always there swimming in that ice cold stream
fed pool? The water was so cold that he and I were usually the only
ones in the pool. Also I never forget that when I was 17 you taught
me how to dance the Cha Cha and the Bosa Nova at Helio Kabala.
Well Parvin, I want to thank you for this interview. It has been
a real education for me in the history of cinema, in antiquity, in modern
politics, about the IRI and in the issues of the times we now live in.
I know that the readers of “The Iranian.com” are going to be very excited
to read this long awaited interview. I thank you from the bottom of
my heart and I hope to see “Pietro Della Valle” entered in the next
Iranian Film Festival in NYC.
A: It is I who must thank you! I have enjoyed talking
to you as always. I send you and your family a big hug.
By Brian Appleton
Part one of the interview with Parvin Ansary continues here…