I have known Professor Parvin Ansary since I was in 6th grade in Rome all the way back to 1961 when I was 11 years old. In 1975 and '76, I acted in two of the films she made in Iran. We have remained and continue to be friends all these years and in fact we consider each other family. There are few people on this planet male or female whose intellect I admire and respect as much as hers. My own father, who went to Harvard College when he was 15, came close but then he was a philosopher and never made a movie in his life. Parvin is not just an academician but is very much of this world too….For me personally I have always considered Parvin to be my very own “Auntie Mame!” (Rosalind Russell, 1958.)
This interview was made in a series of 2 to 3 hour phone conversations from California over a 6 week period in September and October 2003, every Saturday morning with Parvin in her villa in the woods outside Rome. It became such a routine that I am already missing it. See
Q: Where were you born and where did you go to grammar school? A: I was born in Tehran and I went to the French School there.
Q: What do you remember from the Tehran of your childhood? A: I remember beautiful gardens, snow on the mountains, flowers and trees especially at dawn. Now the views of the mountains and the skyline are ruined by all the sky scrapers… I remember the water flowing in the jubes at the sides of the kuches. I remember how people were very kind and generous in those days. I remember the smell of chicken khoresh; and the music in the alleys. When I hear it now, it makes me homesick. It was not so overpopulated then. People were much more generous.
Today people in general, everywhere are overeducated, there is too much information most of which is irrelevant and selecting what is important is not done. There is too much information and a need for self censorship. I prefer my memories of old movies than to seeing them again. There are too many books published these days. I particularly enjoy rereading great books every 10 years or so as I mature to see how the impression they make on me has changed as I have changed. When I read history it seems like politics never changes.
Q: When did you leave Iran? A: I lived in Iran until I was 18 years old and completed grades K through 12 there. Then I went to Switzerland and eventually Rome to continue my higher education. I was always alone. My marriages went bad. I continued my studies while I was a single mom. I love people but I need lots of time by myself to think and be creative. After spending time with people I need some time to be cloistered. I never get bored by myself; I never need company. Let's face it; no one really cares about our personal problems anyway.
Q: How did you first become interested in cinema? A: I loved movies ever since I was a little child. I went twice a week. In those days there were lots of movie theatres on Avenue Lalezar. People were very elegantly dressed to go out to the movies in those days. The films were in French and English and not dubbed. Every so often there was a translation block. Movies were my main form of entertainment as a child.
Q: So when you started out in the film industry in Rome how did you make a living? A: In Rome, I started a dubbing company translating all of Vittorio De Sica's films (“The Bicycle Thief” and “The Garden of The Finzi Contini”) and Carlo Ponte's films into Persian. I had a good friend, who was a baritone opera singer named Hossein Sarshar, who did a lot of the voices.
Also my friend Hananeh, a Persian composer and musician did some of the dubbing. A group of our friends and amateurs who loved film all helped with the dubbing. Khanoum-e-Nabat even learned to dub Sophia Loren and Gina Lola Brigida. I translated lots of Italian comedy into Persian. I was 21 years old at the time. My family didn't approve of it. It was so much fun that it was more like a game than real work and the Iranian public liked it so much that it became a good business for us.
One time Sarshar dubbed both the voice of Alberto Sordi and Vittorio De Sica in the same film at the same time. He did such a great job that I invited both De Sica and Sordi to watch the film in Persian and they loved it. My family and I were friends with Luigi Zampa (To live in Peace, 1946 and City on Trial 1952) who was a big director in those days. Zampa saw what a great interest I had in film and film history and he counseled me to apply to and study at the famous “Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia;” (today it is called the National Film School of Italy and it is still the only state institution of its kind in Italy.)
I was friends with Michelangelo Antonioni (“Blow Up” and “Zabrinski Point,” 1970.) and with Paolo Germi, who also studied at the “Centro” and was a major contributor to Italian Comedy (“Divorce Italian Style”, “Seduced and Abandoned,” 1964.) We were taught both film theory and practical aspects of film making plus I also learned a lot on my own. At the school they taught us about music. You know, a film director must know music, all about music, the history of music and also about script writing, scenery, set design, make up, camera technique, everything…it is a huge job to be a film director; there are so many different aspects to be coordinated. I was very dedicated and serious about learning the techniques in school.
Q: What films did you make? A: At first I made 12 to 14 documentary films for the Italian public about Iran. My first one was about the Zur Khuneh, then about Isfahan and Shiraz. I also made one about Persian miniatures and one called “The Drunkeness of Omar Khayyam.” I produced a whole series of 10 minute films about Iran for RAI (The Italian national radio and television agency.)
Then I went to Iran to make the film:”The Travels of Pietro Della Valle” which you acted in as Sir Robert Shirley. I had already put 5 years of research into the making of Pietro Della Valle before we took a single shot.
You have to understand how difficult it was for a woman to become a film director. Let us digress for a moment and talk about feminism. Women are the last colony to be liberated from the imperialist era. For many centuries woman have been exploited and were not even allowed an education or to write. Women were not allowed to express themselves and had no rights. We young women were greater than a nation in number and yet once we were over 40 we were considered finished.
Q: Don't you think it is amazing considering the “Titism” mentality at the time, that an actress like Audrey Hepburn built her success without big tits? I mean look at what women will do to themselves with plastic surgery in order to have big tits, but can they act? A: Audrey Hepburn for that time was a very rare sophisticated comedienne. Society has become superficial. People don't want to think. Give women another 100 years to learn what to do with their new found freedoms and try to remember that for 1000's of years they have been suppressed.
Q: What do you think about the IRI? A: I think that a 23 year reaction is too long. Even the biggest revolution in the world which was the French Revolution didn't take this long. It is not just Iran. I think that quality of life issues have become a worldwide problem. There are too many people. Everywhere there are cities that are too large and too crowded with too much traffic, too many books and writers, too much information, no selectivity, people live too long. People in antiquity only lived into their 40's if they were lucky.
Iran is like Italy in the sense that it knows how to survive. The mullahs will make deals to survive. Unlike the Arabs they will not fight the USA head on. Iraq is being given no self determination. Bush has packed his administration with Zionists and they will make deals with the mullahs. As bad as Saddam was in Iraq he held the Kurds, Shias and Sunnis together by force until a transition could have been made to democracy. Now what is happening to Iraq?
Q: Let us return to talk about your two major films: “Pietro Della Valle” and “Sarab-e-Soltanieh” and the one you are doing the research for now about: “Beatrice Cenci.” A: When I read Pietro's journals in 3 or 4 different libraries they were very difficult to read in the Italian language of the 1600's but he wrote extremely well. Pietro got his idea from Marco Polo, to travel to the East to become known and important but he was also very sincere. He lived at the time of the Inquisition when Jews and Moslems were being persecuted in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. In Naples there was a group of orientalists.
One in particular named Mario Esquifano loved the orient and he was a friend of Pietro. He talked Pietro into visiting the mythical “Land of Aurora” (Persia.) His journals had three episodes. The first was his trip to Turkey. The Battle of Lepanto (in which Christendom defeated the Ottoman navy) had ended a few decades before and Pietro hated the Turks. He hated Istanbul and ignored it in his journals. When I saw Istanbul for the first time I found it truly the Rome of the East.
In his second episode he traveled to Syria. In my current research on Beatrice Cenci, who was a girl who lived at the end of the 1500's, I find that it was a very difficult time to live in Rome. Her brothers murdered her father for political intrigue, the Protestant Reformation was going on and there was lots of chaos in general and so Pietro was relieved to leave Italy. In Aleppo he knew a Signorina Manni who was catholic and he soon fell in love with her and began also to fall in love with the Middle East seeing it through her eyes.
In the third episode they travel to Persia and he falls in love with it and with Shah Abbas and his court and the fact that Shah Abbas has maintained his independence from the Ottoman. Pietro really came to love Iran. No other travelers to Iran before or after him wrote so well about Iran. He spoke very, very well of Safavid Iran but he also put in little criticisms. At first I didn't understand his strange criticisms but then I came to understand that it was because he was a fervent catholic. Otherwise he admired Iran very much. He traveled in Iran from 1621 to 1622 but did not publish his journals until 40 years later in 1670.
Shah Abbas was very polite to Europeans and to the Armenians at Jolfa and to his other Christian minorities. When the Shah drank his wine he would toast King Phillip II of Spain. The Shah's mullahs from time to time were fanatical but this period was a real renaissance for Iran.
In my film I wanted to capture the essence of the era of Shah Abbas. To make a film capturing that idea could have cost millions and involved millions of extras like a Cecil B. Demille style production but I didn't have that kind of budget. Instead the film became an art film which many critics found metaphysical and jewel like. In 1978 the film was presented at the Monte Carlo Film Festival.
The actor Richard Widmark was one of the judges. He congratulated me and commented favorably on my film. He particularly liked the mixture of Monteverdi and traditional Persian music in it. Although the film was mentioned by the reporter covering the festival for Time Magazine, in retrospect the Monte Carlo Film Festival was not the correct venue to debut this film. Even the judges were not right. I mean after all Widmark was a cowboy actor. It won a gold medal at the documentary festival in Nice that year as well.
The IRI didn't like my film because it did nothing to enhance their politics. At the Key Club people sent me over champagne. They recognized my film. I had used some of my own funds to produce it. It was not a popular film. I have never tried to make a popular film. I have particular tastes that may not appeal to everyone. But I can tell you that whoever sees this film loves it. It has become a Classic.
I am a foreigner in Italy and also in Iran. I can tell you that Darius Mehrjui (“The Cow.”1970, “The Cycle,”1977 and “The Tennants,” 1982) likes my work and respects it. I was never part of a group. I always went solo.
When I was making: “Sarab-e-Soltanieh,” the revolution started and the NIRT which was helping to fund it went on strike. The IRI didn't like my film. I told them it was about the mosque at Soltanieh but they weren't impressed. In this film half the Iranians were Europeanized and Americanized and half were not. The male protagonist was an archeologist studying the unique blue ceramic tile at Soltanieh. He was played by Parviz Mirhosseini. In his role, he had a traditional conservative father and he had gone to school in a madresseh. His girlfriend, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, was Europeanized and didn't speak Persian very well.
I thought this film was appropriate for the time but the IRI put it in a box at NIRT and said they would call me and that was 24 years ago now. The film had three episodes and I made it with both my own money and funding from NIRT. I thought it was a very honest work.
Shohreh was perfect for the role. She is a real actress and works very hard. I came to feel a great affection for Shohreh and vice versa. When you put me in touch with her after 24 years it was like no time had passed at all. She is so unpretentious and simpatica. Also Gholam-Hossein Naghshineh was perfect in both my films: “Pietro Della Valle” and “Sarab-e-Soltanieh.” The Italian film editors were very impressed with the professionalism of Naghshineh. The filming of “Sarab-e-Soltanieh” was made so easy by the professionalism of the actors.
Q: What was the deal with that Yugoslav lead actor: Stanco Molnar? What was his recommendation? A: I was attracted by his eyes but he was a pain in the ass. He was recommended to me by my friends the Taviani brothers. He had acted for Paolo and Vittorio Taviani in their film “Intolerance” about the American director Griffith. He also acted in Bertolucci's: “1900” and in “Allons Enfants…” Stanco worked with Marcello Mastroiani but he did not have the warm personality of Marcello. I liked Stanco's eyes.
You know I have many gay friends who are very simpatico and wonderful human beings but Stanco put on airs and had a difficult personality to work with. A great actor must be humble and helpful not difficult. He was a closet case gay and had a diva attitude. Remember how he fussed about not having a room in the Shah Abbas Hotel and moved in over there at his own expense? And I never got much help from the assistant directors either while making “Pietro…”
Regarding “Sarab-e-Soltanieh,” the cause should have been more important than luck. In ancient Persia, 500 years ago, they used to talk about “the auspicious time to do something, the right time to do something.” It was the wrong time to make this film. I finished it in August of 1978. With all the strikes going on, I saw it all happening but I had to bring this film to Iran to make it. There were huge strikes, nothing was happening at NIRT and then the Shah left and Khomeini arrived. The revolution made huge, huge changes to everything. The new directors, even the best are restricted by the IRI. Actresses have to wear head scarves.
But even during the Shah's time there were some quite daring films that were made. I once asked Hatami, the director of “Silk Route” how he managed to get away with making that film. It took a lot of courage to make that film even coming at the end of the Shah's era as it did.
There is no way today that I could remake “Sarab-e-Soltanieh” now with all the women in chadors. We are small in the face of huge historic events. Before the revolution much was wrong but there were a lot of good things too. Those who wanted a better Iran were marginalized by the IRI. The Mojahedin and the Fadaiyan were marginalized.
Q: What did you think of Sharpour Bakhtiar? A: Sharpour Bakhtiar would have been perfect. Khomeini appealed to the illiterate masses. I interviewed Bakhtiar one time for the “Corriere della Sera” (largest circulation Italian daily.) Bakhtiar was educated in France. The population of Iran was not ready for Bakhtiar. The people had once loved the Shah but the Shah did not give parliament enough power.
The Imperial Court appointed parliament and the MP's were mostly the nouveau riche. Bakhtiar believed in the constitution of Iran and in an elected parliament. Mossadegh believed in the constitution and the parliament as well. All the revolutions in Europe in the 1800's were fought to gain parliamentary systems. The Shah understood this too but it was too late. He needed to start making Iran into a republic 4 or 5 years sooner.
I believe that the USA had only one motive. They were afraid of the USSR only. I do not believe in a big conspiracy theory. Usually motives are simple not complicated in history. Khomeini wanted to export his revolution to the Shias in Iraq. I believe Saddam attacked Iran for his own motives also and not just at the bidding of the USA. Khomeini wanted to conquer Jerusalem and Syria. If Gorbachev had arrived earlier there would have been a much softer transition in Iran.
Illiteracy almost no longer exists in Iran. There are many books being printed and translated in Iran. As long as the first page has a disclaimer against the Shah and his father then they can print anything they want without further censorship. People are very well read these days and a lot of books are being published now in Iran. The Shah had much more censorship of literature than now. It is a different type of censorship now of a religious nature like the restrictions on drinking, women's dress and make up and so on.
Some great books have been written under the IRI regime about Shah Reza and Reza Shah. Some very good writers are still in Iran. The population has become much more educated. The population never dies. The Italians have never been as great as the Romans even though they had their Renaissance, O.K.! But Persians never die. Persians were always advisors to the Ottoman caliphs for example. Modern Greeks have never attained the greatness of the ancient Greeks like Aristotle, Socrates or Plato but Persians still have a great culture.
Q: What do you think about modern Iranian cinema? A: Some beautiful films are also being made now in Iran. The whole world is calling Iranians terrorists thanks to America and yet they have been making films, some very artistic films in the middle of all this. Persians in the final analysis are poets not terrorists. I always thank Persian students and poets because they insist on existing in spite of all the politics.
“The Circle,” “Dayere” of Jafar-e-Panahi was very beautiful. It was not right for TV because it was full of “chiaro scuro.” It won the Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival. The movie starts out in a hospital with a baby being born and the whole family wanting a boy. When a girl is born they are all disappointed. You see I am telling you again that women are the last colony to be liberated.
Kiorastani has been very successful. In Italy he has much respect and is considered a great photographer and referred to as Maestro. Also Makhmalbaf and his film “Kandahar” has earned a lot of recognition internationally. I am very impressed by the courage of Kiorastani and his films.
Q: Besides Kiarostani and Makhmalbaf are their any other modern Iranian directors that you admire? A: Well those are the two I am most familiar with. I liked Abbas Kiarostani's “Taste of Cherry” about ordinary events in life and emotions versus 20th century events beyond our control. His films are always successful despite the climate of fear of censorship in the IRI and I admire his courage greatly. “The Circle” was much more cinematographic but I did not find it profound three days later….
A lot of the interest in Iranian film is due to the curiosity in the West about life in the IRI. However I must add that there were also some great directors at the time of the Shah like Kimiavi. He was an admirer of Jean Luc Goddard. Kimiavi made some very beautiful films in those days. In fact, despite his shortcomings, the Shah actually did much for Iran and the Iranian cinema industry with classes offered in cinematography at the universities and by supporting NIRT. The great directors of Iran learned their craft under the Shah's regime not the Mullahs even though they try to claim credit for them.
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.
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 911? 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.
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 Ponte 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.
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.
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.
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. See