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Franco Zeffirelli, Director of World Fame and Italian Aesthetic Sensibility, Dies at 96

Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and life-long anglophile, Italian icon and politician, Zeffirelli was a man defined by versatility

Franco Zeffirelli 1923-2019 (Photo by Alexey Yushenkov)

It is fair to say that while his work in opera design and staging have consistently received praise, his film career has been more checkered. He has achieved a signature style that makes his films easily recognizable as a “Zeffirelli work,” but…

Celebrated director Franco Zeffirelli died on Saturday, June 15, in Rome at the age of 96. Born as Gianfranco Corsi on February 12, 1923, a little-known fact about Zeffirelli is that his father Ottorino Corsi, was born and raised in Vinci, Tuscany, and that he was a distant relative of the great Leonardo da Vinci.

Zeffirelli has had a varied career, leaving his mark as a director of both opera and film. In addition to his lifelong work in the arts, he was also very active in politics. A leading politician in Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party, he served as Senator between 1994 to 2001 for the constituency of Catania. He received  various prestigious awards; he was made Grande Ufficiale OMRI of the Italian Republic in 1977 and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the British government in 2004, and the city of Rome bestowed the Premio Colosseo on him in 2009.  The British award is of particular note because an honorary knighthood is generally not given for achievements in the arts, and it highlights Zeffirelli’s long-standing connections to Great Britain.  During Zeffirelli’s childhood in Florence he was in contact with a community of British expatriates whose actions inspired his 1999 film,  Tea with Mussolini . He later served in the British Army between 1942 and 1945 as an interpreter for the 1st Scots Guards. He was a life-long anglophile.

Franco Zeffirelli shooting “Romeo and Juliet” (1967).

Originally studying art and architecture at the University of Florence, after World War II Zeffirelli moved to Rome and got into acting and stage direction, later focusing on stage designing. While working for a scenic painter in Florence, he met Luchino Visconti, who hired him as assistant director for the film La Terra trema, (1948).  In the 1950s Zeffirelli’s major efforts were devoted to directing opera.

Director Franco Zeffirelli and actress Olivia Hussey, filming “Romeo and Juliet” (1967)

While his career in opera has been brilliant, his films have made him known to the mass public.  Zeffirelli’s first collaborations with Visconti left a deep impression on his artistic formation. Later, he was equally influenced by other major directors such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini.  It is fair to say that Zeffirelli should be considered one of the great popularizers of classic literature. He has infused passion and topicality into Shakespeare, and demystified sacred books such as the New Testament by naturalizing miracles and historicizing Jesus.

Stylistically, Zeffirelli’s films are characterized by the primacy of aesthetics. He casts beautiful young people, even when the logic of the plot does not justify it. For example, despite the fact that his aim was to historicize Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth, he cast blond and blue-eyed Robert Powell, a quintessentially Caucasian actor who embodied the stereotypical–and now politically incorrect– image of Jesus as depicted in classic iconography.

Similarly, Zeffirelli’s sets are usually gorgeous even when the story line calls for poverty and squalor, as is the case both for Jesus of Nazareth and Brother Sun, Sister Moon. The productions have commonly been called lush, and Zeffirelli has often been accused of going “over-the-top”; sometimes the adjectives used are not lush, but gaudy or vulgar.

With few exceptions such as the short documentary that Zeffirelli made in 1966 about the floods that devastated Florence, (Florence: Days of Destruction) Zeffirelli  has largely gone through phases in his selection of canonical texts to bring to the screen. For instance, in the 1960’s Zeffirelli produced more than one movie adapted from Shakespearean plays. These included The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and his most famous film, Romeo and Juliet (1968), referred to by one critic as an example of Aquarian-age Shakespeare that embodied the spirit of the 1960’s. Critic Roger Ebert wrote what could possibly be the most enthusiastic review of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, declaring that “…[it]has the passion, the sweat, the violence, the poetry, the love and the tragedy in the most immediate terms I can imagine. It is a deeply moving piece of entertainment, and that is possibly what Shakespeare would have preferred”.

He was not as fortunate with The Taming of the Shrew which starred the most famous and spectacular couple of the era, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Petruchio and Katharina. Most of the reviews were lukewarm at best, and some were actually scathing, with critics mentioning that the Burton-Taylor presence overshadowed all other aspects of the film. Zeffirelli returned to the Shakespeare canon in 1990 with a modestly successful version of Hamlet that starred Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, who was awarded the David di Donatello as Best Foreign Actress.

In the 1970’s Zeffirelli focused on Christian themes, with Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) that portrayed the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, and the television mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977). While the latter was a major success that has withstood the test of time, Brother Sun, Sister Moon was a flop. Vincent Canby of  The New York Times bluntly declared that, “Zeffirelli has made a big, absurd doodad, a movie that confuses simplicity with simple-mindedness and that makes saintliness look like an extreme form of Asian flu.” 

Verona, Arena, July 2016: Opera “La Traviata” by Franco Zeffirelli

In the 1980’s the director focused mostly on operatic adaptations on film, and during subsequent decades Zeffirelli visited diverse eras and themes such as a film adaptation of Jane Eyre (1996), another of Giovanni Verga’s Storia di una capinera (1993) and Tea with Mussolini (1999).

While his work in opera design and staging have consistently received praise, his film career has been more checkered. He  achieved a signature style that made his films easily recognizable as a “Zeffirelli work,” but this seems to be due more to the lushness and extravagance of the productions, with splendid settings, costumes, and photographic effects rather than to narrative cohesion or cinematic consistency.

Franco Zeffirelli at his house, June 2015 (Photo by Debora Pioli)

Zeffirelli was involved in many controversies in his life-time. Some would say that he cultivated them, and at times his reactions were puzzling, since he seemed to enjoy creating them but not when they were generated by others. As an example, consider that he filmed a 15-year-old Olivia Hussey nude for Romeo and Juliet, a decision whose seriousness actually made it impossible for the young protagonist to view her own film. Yet, in 1988 Zeffirelli threatened to withdraw his film, The Young Toscanini, from the Venice Film Festival because he knew that another entry, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, would create controversy, declaring, “What I find insufferable is the provocation this film presents for the Catholic and Christian world”. 

Such are the paradoxes of life, yet rather than detracting from Zeffirelli’s greatness as a director and artist, they remind us that an artist’s vision stems from many contradictory—and frequently mysterious– impulses. Zeffirelli’s distinctive style–even with its contradictions–came to represent the quintessential Italian aesthetic sensibility. 

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