While in necessary isolation, the author recalls his association with a small, interconnected group of luminaries: a cineaste, a jazz musician, a poetess and a cinematic legend
Like so many others around the country and around the world, I have been spending most of my time inside in recent days, as part of our collective effort to slow and eventually halt the further spread of the terrible virus that has currently seized all of our attention. In an attempt to prevent myself from obsessing over the latest news, I threw myself into my work, attending to all that needed attending to. Regrettably, I burned through my supply of immediate tasks faster than I had anticipated, leaving me to dig a little deeper. This was when my attention was caught by a file that I had begun a few years earlier but had set aside in favor of other more pressing matters. And yet, in my heart, there was nothing more pressing. The death of one of world cinema’s most important figures had prompted me, at the time, to excavate a letter that he had sent to me almost two decades earlier, which, in turn, had led me to think about the connections in my life that had caused that letter to be written in the first place, connections to some of the most remarkable figures whom it has been my pleasure to have known.
Elisa Michelle De Sorrentino (1932-1995)
One evening on a busy day in the fall of 1988, a young boy entered the main store of my business, International Film & Video Center, on First Avenue in Manhattan. Like most customers, he started leafing through the stacks of video covers that we kept gathered in the main part of the store, in his case concentrating on the various groups of foreign films arranged by country, and then, after a short chat with the clerks, asked if he might see me. I was sitting upstairs in my office getting ready to leave when he was brought up. His name was Emiliano Battista; he was very polite and clearly well-educated. He expressed amazement with the breadth of our film selection and told me that he had been sent there to see if he could get some films by Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha films for his family. He had only emigrated to the US a few months earlier from Brazil and had been told by his foster mother about our collection. As we spoke about his family, I learned that his stepmother was Elisa Michelle de Sorrentino, whose husband was renowned jazz musician Gato Barbieri. Soon afterwards, I would meet the both of them, beginning a beautiful friendship that would last for the rest of their two lives.
Michelle was born on July 27, 1932, in Rome, and was subsequently raised and educated in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From early in life, she had an intense love for both music and cinema, and watching films was a daily habit. She met Gato in her mid-twenties. They became fast friends and, not long afterwards, lovers as well. This partnership soon extended to their work, and by 1960, she had become Gato’s manager and musical confidante. They married in 1962. That same year, they took a trip to Rome so that Gato could perform some concerts and also so that they could visit with a friend, Gianni Amico (1933-1990), who, two years earlier, had founded the International Latin American Film of Santa Margherita Ligure, a showcase for the greatest filmmakers of the South American New Wave, including Glauber Rocha, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and Fernando Birri. Amico had visited Buenos Aires in 1961 for another festival, where he met Gato and Michelle and struck up a friendship with them.
At the time that Michelle and Gato visited Rome, Amico was working on his first script, in collaboration with a young, talented writer/director named Bernardo Bertolucci, a project that would become Before the Revolution. Amico introduced them, and as they all got to know each other, Bernardo could not help but notice Michelle’s capability, talent and knowledge. He asked her to serve as his assistant during production on Before the Revolution, which was subsequently shot over the period of September-November, 1963, debuting to considerable acclaim the following May at the Cannes Film Festival.
Gato and Michelle subsequently remained in Rome for the following three years, with Gato continuing to give concerts around the country. Eventually, however, despite their success and the many friends they had made, the desire to move on overtook them, and, in 1965, they moved once again, this time to New York. They would stay there for the rest of their lives, fortunately for me, as this was the circumstance that allowed me to meet and befriend them.
Michelle was a cineaste at heart, and had many stories to tell about her time working for the maestro Bertolucci. After the publication of my book, Iranian Cinema, by New York University in 1987, the two of us began to discuss writing a book together. Her experiences and my tremendous interest made Bertolucci a natural choice. We worked on this project in earnest for a few years in the early 1990s, but, as so many are learning now, nature never takes into consideration the needs and passions of human beings. As it happens, Michelle had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-‘80s. She had been carrying on a valiant and largely successful fight against it for ten years when she finally succumbed to the disease, passing away on February 14, Valentine’s Day, 1995.
In his pain, Gato could only bring himself to contact a few people the day after Michelle died; I remain honored that I was one of them. I rushed to his side to console and comfort him as best as I could in his pain and loneliness. He further honored me by asking me to deliver the eulogy.
Michelle’s memorial service was held at the Public Theater in New York, attended by many distinguished musicians, filmmakers, and friends, including Bertolucci, who flew in from Rome. Emiliano Battista, her adopted son, by that time a successful lawyer living in Europe, also flew in. Fabiano Canosa, another friend of Gato and Michelle’s and the theater’s Brazilian programmer, spoke first and then I gave the eulogy.
After the ceremony, about twenty of the couple’s closest friends went to a restaurant for an early dinner, and it was there that Gato introduced me to Bernardo. Thanks to the time spent working on the book, I almost felt like I already knew him, so to be able actually to get to know him was a dream come true.
A few days later, Gato and I picked up Michelle’s ashes. We walked to the Hudson River and he poured his beloved’s remains into the water so that she could be carried out to the ocean.
I was then faced with a decision as to the book about Bertolucci. A part of me knew that I could continue the work on my own, but another part could not help but feel the acute loss of my writing partner. Ultimately, as I had had to let go of Michelle, I decided to let go of the book as well.
Gato Barbieri (1932-2016)
Gato was a lovable, sweet and quiet person, rarely seen without his signature black hat and scarf. Some of my finest memories of the ‘90s, indeed of my life, are of the many hours I spent enjoying his and Michelle’s company, sharing and discussing films and music, mostly at my home.
Gato Barbieri was born in Rosario Leandro in Argentina, earning the nickname Gato (‘the cat’) during his youth in Buenos Aires, a name that was as distinctive as the jazz icon to whom it was attached. He grew up in a family for which music was an essential part of life, and most of his family members were musicians themselves.
Playing alto sax in the orchestra of Lalo Schifrin, the great pianist and composer and a fellow Argentinian, Gato gained national fame, and in the early 1960s, he started playing with his own groups. In that era, he was splitting his time between Rome and New York. Michelle managed his career while simultaneously acting as Bernardo Bertolucci’s assistant on his early films. This association would prove beneficial to Gato, whose name recognition went worldwide after he composed the unforgettable score for Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris with Marlon Brando. The film garnered two Academy Awards and Gato ultimately won a Grammy Award for this marvelous score.
In 1993, when Amir Naderi was working on his first American film, Manhattan by Numbers, a film that I produced, he originally had planned to present the film with no music, but this version got a somewhat lukewarm reception at the initial round of festivals, with viewers complaining of a lack of emotional resonance. After much discussion, Naderi eventually changed his mind, and as an executive producer, I asked if he wanted me to bring Gato in to write and perform the score. Naderi agreed without hesitation. Although it had been a long time since Gato had composed any film music, he graciously accepted. He would not accept a fee for his work, asking only that I pay for the musicians and recording studio. The score that resulted added a magnificent dimension to our film, an element that caught the notice of all the critics, including Vincent Canby of the New York Times. It cost me an extra fifty thousand dollars to get it done, but I remain especially proud of that decision.
Three years later, when I produced Seven Servants, directed by Daryush Shokof and starring the master Anthony Quinn, I asked Gato to do another score for me, arranging a meeting between him and Mr. Quinn at a restaurant in New York to discuss the music. The result was another wonderful set of pieces that pleased everyone who heard it.
When Seven Servants was selected for the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 1996, the festival organizers asked me to bring Gato and his band to the festival for a one-night concert. Despite the fact that, owing to scheduling, he and his band would have to come to Greece, perform that one night and then return to the States the very next morning, Gato agreed to do me this unforgettable favor, one more thing for which I owe him greatly.
Gato’s mastery was in incorporating South American melodies, rhythms and harmonies into contemporary jazz, creating a characteristic sound for his tenor sax that became his own style. His sound was romantic, passionate, cool, and mystical, with an underlying sense of sadness. He released more than 40 albums, and his awards included the UNICEF Award at the Argentinean Consulate in 2009 and a Latin Grammy lifetime achievement award.
Gato died of pneumonia at a New York hospital on Saturday, April 2, 2016. He was 83. He was survived by his second wife, Laura, a very nice, well-educated lady, and their son, Michael, who is currently in graduate school.
After Gato died, I published a piece and sent it to Bertolucci, and he kindly wrote back on Monday, April 4, 2016:
My dear Bahman,
Gato was a unique great talent, never lost his Argentinian DNA even in the moment of his extreme free jazz period. The only white sax tenor I ever heard in my life with a completely black sound. Great sadness here as I know there too.
I hope to be in Rome when you pass by and I’ll see you with great pleasure.
Let me know.
Forough Farrokhzad (1934-1967)
Forough Farrokhzad, a poet, writer, editor and filmmaker, was born in Tehran in 1935. Her father was a military officer. She was the third of seven children, with four brothers and two sisters. All were well-educated, and three became famous. Puran (1931-2016), who was older than Forough, was a writer, poet, translator, journalist and literary critic, and younger brother Fereydoun (1938-1992) was a writer, poet, intellectual and famous showman who was tragically brutally murdered in Bonn, Germany. The other siblings, while not famous, were also known to be intelligent, artistic individuals.
Forough began studying painting at an early age and wrote her first bit of verse when she was thirteen. She entered into a loveless marriage at age 16 with a relative, caricaturist Parviz Shahpur, who was sixteen years older than she; they divorced in 1954. Her only son, Kamyar, was taken away from her by his father and raised by his family. The lack of a proper relationship with her son caused anger and trauma for both of them throughout their lives, and Kamyar eventually committed suicide.
Her first collection of poems, Asir (The Captive), was published in 1952, followed by Divar (The Wall) in 1956 and Osian (Rebellion) in 1957. It was around the time of these latter collections that she became interested in cinema.
In early July of 1956, she went to Italy, staying for nine months and learning Italian. She worked with Alex Aghababian dubbing Italian films into Farsi, spending all the rest of her time visiting museums and watching films. She then moved on to Germany, living in Munich for five months with her older brother, a medical student. In that time, she managed to learn German and, with her brother’s assistance, translated a collection of twenty-nine German poets, a volume that would only be published posthumously in 1980 under the title My Death Will Come One Day. These fourteen European months had an indelible effect on the young woman, and she emerged from them even more mature and knowledgeable than she had already been. By the time of her return to Tehran in late summer 1956, film, poetry and the plastic arts all held new meaning for her, and she knew that she wanted, indeed needed, to experience and learn more. She had also further come into her own as an independent, modern woman. The love affairs that she had with a few Iranian literary figures might have seemed shocking to some in Iranian society, but she paid such attitudes no heed, preferring to embrace the spirit of feminism and sexual liberation that would come to be a hallmark of her poetry.
In her search for a job so that she might continue to live independently, she eventually met Ebrahim Golestan, a novelist and filmmaker thirteen years her senior. In July of 1958, she began to work in his studio in several capacities, including as a secretary and as an archivist of both films and news material filed according to subject. Golestan had established his studio in March of 1958, producing newsreels, dubbing films and making documentaries for various foreign news organization and Iranian institutions. Golestan could not help but be impressed by her – not only was she whip smart; she was also a very quick learner – and his admiration soon turned to affection. They fell in love and Golestan, who was married, left his wife to live with Forough. Her time with Golestan amplified the path that she was already on, as he exposed her to an even greater degree of art and cinema.
On April 8, 1958, Oil Well #6 in Ahvaz in the southwest of Iran caught fire. Myron Macy Kinley, an American specialist and pioneer in the field, was brought to Iran to extinguish the massive fire, a heroic fight that took seventy-two days. Golestan, who had accidentally broken his leg and was in hospital at the time that the fire started, sent his younger brother Shahrokh to Ahvaz. Shahrokh Golestan had begun as an amateur, engaging in photography and shooting films in high school in 1952. He had joined his brother at the Golestan Studio in 1958 as a news cameraman and photographer.
Shahrokh was on the scene from the second day of the fire and stayed for more than 70 days, shooting day and night, using Kodachrome reversal film, managing to capture the entire saga of Kinley and his men as they first tamed and then ended the savage fire. He had a 16mm Bolex camera, a photographic tripod, and a zoom lens. He had no sound man and no other form of assistance whatsoever. Shahrokh could immediately tell that putting out the fire was going to be a long process, so he contacted Ebrahim. In what was clearly a sound decision, Ebrahim agreed with his brother that they were better off making a full-length documentary than a short newsreel. Ebrahim also promised to send a constant supply of Kodachrome film.
Shahrokh returned to Studio Golestan with 1500 meters of rushes. Ebrahim, as a talented producer, immediately saw the potential for a film. He also saw another opportunity to foster Forough’s brilliance, and thus sent her to London for a few months to study editing. Upon her return, she edited the film through her masterfully poetic sensibility, taking all of 1960 to finish it. She also co-wrote the narration with Ebrahim. The film, titled Yek Atash (A Fire), won the Golden Lion of Saint Marco in 1961, but, in the process, an injustice was perpetrated. Ebrahim Golestan, because of his broken leg, never actually set foot on the scene; regrettably, however, most historians and critics never mentioned Shahrokh as the director and cinematographer of this near masterpiece. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shahrokh, who lives in Paris, about his career, and a clear and vivid picture emerged as to his thoroughly essential role in this film.
After acting in a few short films and editing numerous documentaries at Studio Golestan, Forough was assigned to direct a documentary about the leper colony in Babadaqi, near Tabriz in northwest Tehran. Golestan and Dr. Raji, the head of the leprosy association, reached an agreement to produce this documentary for one hundred thousand toman (7000 dollars at that time), each contributing half of the cost.
After an initial trip with Dr. Raji to see the location, its environment and its patients, Forough returned there with Soleiman Minasian (cinematographer), Mahmoud Hangval (sound recorder) and three assistants to shoot the film in mid-October 1962. In an interview, Soleiman Minasian told me: “She did not have any script, and the first two days, she just walked around observing everybody and everything they did from room to room. How they eat, what they do during the day, and how they talk and gather in groups. Their kids, their relatives, all their belongings, etc. We didn’t really do anything – honestly, we were frightened of the disease – and just spent all that time observing. Then, eventually, she started to shoot, taking full control of the directing, camera placement and composition of the frame and even control of selected characters’ movement.” I asked Minasian if he had offered any direction suggestions or shot any footage without her permission, but the answer was no. “She knew what she was doing throughout the shoot.”
They returned after two weeks. By January, editing had been completed, and the finished film, called The House Is Black, an allegorical, poetic and moving documentary, had its first screening at the 82nd session of Kanun Film Iran in Tehran on February 20, 1963.
Ebrahim Golestan, as producer, sent The House Is Black to the 16th Cannes Film Festival for the competition section. On May 6, the festival informed him of the film’s acceptance and that its screening would take place on Monday, May 20, 1963. Surprisingly, Golestan immediately sent a telegram requesting that the film be withdrawn, without any explanation. On May 14, the director of Cannes replied, also by telegram, agreeing to cancel the screening.
This mysterious act almost certainly denied the film a greater degree of success and robbed Forough Farrokhzad of the sort of international recognition that she so richly deserved. This latter fact has led some to speculate that Golestan believed that increased fame for her would undermine him and that he simply could not tolerate that idea.
If true, this would be a sad turn of affairs, particularly in as much as Golestan’s influence on Forough was obvious, especially in the brilliant poetry published in her fourth and final volume, Tavalodi Digar (Another Birth), dedicated to him, in 1963.
Later, in the winter of the same year, the film won the top prize at the Tenth Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany. When Golestan informed her about the honor, Forough reportedly gave him a cold and indifferent response.
This unique film is now roundly considered by historians of Iranian cinema to be the first marker in the birth of the Iranian New Wave.
Since then, The House Is Black has been recognized and appreciated as it deserves, being screened at various prestigious film festivals, such as the Locarno Film Festival in 1995, the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival in 1996, the New York Film Festival in 1997, and many more.
Ebrahim Golestan, himself a novelist, documentary filmmaker and, above all, an intellectual, directed his first feature, The Brick and the Mirror, in 1964. (The film even features a brief appearance by Forough Farrokhzad.) His film was selected for the first Pesaro Film Festival in Italy in the summer of 1965. While in Pesaro for the festival, Golestan had the chance to meet
Bernardo Bertolucci, initiating a long friendship with him.
The following year, The House Is Black was among the films selected for the second Pesaro Film Festival. Consequently, Forough traveled there with a letter of introduction from Golestan to Bertolucci.
She was unable to make it to Pesaro in time for the opening night, but did manage to arrive from Rome by train the day after, immediately going to meet with Lino Micciche, the founder of the festival. Later that evening, she found Bernardo and presented him with the letter from Golestan. Bernardo then invited her to come to dinner with him and his wife at a nightclub.
The House Is Black was shown at 12 midnight of the last day of the festival, Saturday, June 4, 1966. The screening was initially marred by sound problems in the first few minutes, but these were swiftly overcome. Joris Ivens, the Czechoslovakian filmmaker, and the Italian critics immediately expressed their admiration for the film, but Jean-Luc Godard and his fellow French critics left without giving any opinion of it. It was rumored that they were unhappy that the film had been withdrawn from being shown at Cannes. Forough, already nervous about the film’s reception, asked Bernardo if he had heard anything about the French opinion and he assured her that they liked it too.
As a side note: Adriana Apra, a famous film critic and author of a number of books on Italian cinema, later became the director of the Pesaro Film Festival. In 1990, he asked me to write an overview of Amir Naderi’s filmography for a retrospective program that they were featuring in that year’s program. I wrote a lengthy analysis in English, which they printed in their catalogue in Italian, covering his films from his first, Kheda Hafez Rafiq (Goodbye Friend, 1970), to Ab, Bad, Khak (Water, Wind, Sand, 1987). This article was later printed in various magazines and books, having been translated into German, French and Farsi.
Through their meetings at Pesaro, Forough and Bernardo became friends. A few months later, Bertolucci traveled to Tehran to shoot the first part (“the source”) of The Oil Route (La Via del Petrolio), a documentary in three parts for RAI-Radiotelevisione and ENA, a large petroleum Company.
Bertolucci got help from Golestan, who had made documentaries for the Iranian National Oil Company, and therefore had connections amongst its upper levels. While in Tehran, Bertolucci met with Farrokhzad a few more times. She conducted one short interview with him, consisting of only three questions, after which he returned to Italy to finish his film.
Unfortunately, Forough Farrokhzad died in a car accident on February 13, 1967, when she was only 32 years old. We can only lament the valuable film and poetry that she would have undoubtedly added to the store of Iranian art and literary treasures had she lived longer.
Bernardo Bertolucci (1940-2018)
Bernardo Bertolucci was a maestro and cinematic legend, one of the co-creators in the ‘60s of the New Italian Cinema, along with Antonioni, Fellini and Pasolini. He made twenty-four feature films, garnering various prizes and creating a number of provocative masterpieces, including The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1972).
His theme was an exploration of the human condition, specifically the combination of politics and sex, with a largely Marxist-Freudian twist. His films were always full of energy and enthusiasm, and he enjoyed both literary adaptions and lavish and elaborate epics like The Last Emperor (1987), winner of nine Oscars, including Best Director.
Thanks to my friendship with Michelle Barbieri, I had had the privilege of meeting the great director, and he and I would continue to keep in touch over time, talking periodically and meeting when we could. When I finished my book Grass: Untold Stories, I had my brother, who was traveling to Italy at the time, deliver a copy of the galley to him, along with a letter asking him to write an introduction. Unfortunately, the timing was terrible; Bernardo had just undergone a back operation in Switzerland and was enduring a lot of pain.
The next part of the story requires a bit of introduction. During the period that Bertolucci had spent in Iran, his time associating with Forough Farrokhzad had not gone unnoticed, particularly after the release of the short interview that she had conducted with him. For reasons that no one now seems to know, a rumor began to circulate that, just as she had filmed him, he too had filmed her, indeed, that he had filmed her for the purpose of making a documentary about this remarkable young Iranian talent. I had heard this phantom film spoken about many times over the years, but could find no evidence of its actual existence.
One day in the year 2000, I was sitting in my office when the telephone rang. It was my business manager, and he told me that there was a Mr. Lucci on the phone. I was puzzled, but soon realized who it was when I answered. He had not wanted to use his full name. We talked at length, eventually touching on the subject of Forough. I immediately sensed a unique opportunity, and so I asked him about the film that he had purportedly made about her. He denied that he had ever made such a film. I asked him if he would kindly write a letter to me indicating the truth of the situation, a solid piece of proof that I could use to bring light to this little mystery once and for all. He promised that he would, and an hour later, I received a fax from him. This fax is printed below, and it is the first time I have ever made it public.
I will never forget our few meetings in New York and Rome, particularly one that took place at his home on November 13, 2017.
I was on the way to the Bari International Film Festival in Italy to serve as a juror, and I stopped in Rome for two days. We scheduled a meeting between Bernardo and myself, accompanied by a friend of mine, for noon on November 13, 2017. After we had been shown in, Bernardo entered in a wheelchair, greeting me and my friend with a kind smile on his face. We talked at length about Michelle and Gato. We spoke about Golestan, who had visited him a few months earlier. Of course, we talked about his films. And, lastly, we touched on Forough Farrokhzad, Iran’s legendary poetess; once again, the mysterious film about her came up and, once again, he expressed regret that he had never made such a film.
Just over a year later, on Monday, November 26, 2018, I received the shocking news about the sudden death of cinematic legend Bernardo Bertolucci in Rome. Even in this sad circumstance, another small thread of connection appeared. Bernardo had died one day before what would have been Gato’s 86th birthday.
Coincidentally, the previous Friday, my brother had traveled to Rome with a copy of a book, Bernardo Bertolucci Interview (translated by Sami Astan), which I had given to him to pass along to the maestro, just as he had previously passed on the copy of Grass: Untold Stories. I had been eager to hear Bertolucci’s reaction to the interview book, a reaction I can now only imagine.
I am currently sitting in my office at home, surrounded by many mementos of the assorted people it has been my pleasure and privilege to meet, work and laugh with over the years. This difficult time through which we are all living may have the silver lining of our being able to spend more time with our families. And yet I have also had more time to reflect on the interconnectedness of our world, and how experience often leads to experience. These invisible bonds become more and more apparent all of the time; we have to be willing to explore and appreciate them.
New York, April 2, 2020