The Last Colony

Interview with filmmaker Parvin Ansary

Don’t miss part one of the

interview with Parvin Ansary

Q: Tell me about the latest film you are working

on now?

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.

Parvin Ansary and Gian Maria Volonte

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

“Potemkin?”

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

to 1400.

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

upsetting.

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.

Parvin and De Sica

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

goes out.

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

2 hours.

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.

Parvin and Alberto Sordi

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

and sophisticated.

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.

A: Exactly!

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

Horror films!

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

Jimmy Stewart!

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

my window…

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.

Parvin and Anna Maria PierAngeliI 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

human nature.

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

Mann’s novella.)

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

chef!

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

L.A.”

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

films.

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…

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