Franco Zeffirelli: The Loss Of A Legend

Franco Zeffirelli

 I am not a film director. I am a director who uses different instruments to express his dreams and his stories to make people dream.

A little more than a week ago, the famous Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli has died at the age of 96. His loss leaves not only Italy but also the entire world empty handed.

A well-known writer, politician, filmmaker and metteur en scène, Zeffirelli produced more than 20 masterpieces during his career, taking inspiration from English literature and important operas, in which his aesthetic sense — also developed thanks to his mentor Luchino Visconti — was always present.

He was supposed to become an architect. But after the outbreak of World War II, in which he took part in the Communist partisan-led Resistance against Fascist and Nazi forces, his life took a different turn. As soon as he viewed Laurence Olivier’s Henry V in 1944, he was fascinated by entertainment; and following his graduation from Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts), he decided to pursue this path and dedicate his life to theater and cinematography.

He started his career as an assistant director of famous producers, like Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti. After completing these experiences, he concentrated his activity on stage design.

One of his first works was the adaptation of The Italian Woman in Algiers, a two-act drama by Gioachino Rossini, in Milan. Then, he continued to direct other plays in different parts of the world, such as Italy, United Stated and Great Britain, where he worked alongside great artists, including Luciano Pavarotti in the Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi, Maria Callas — who starred in more than 6 operas — and Placido Domingo.

Thereafter, he started directing movies on his own: his filmmaker debut dated back in 1957, with the romantic comedy Camping, which featured Italian actor Nino Manfredi.

His favorite themes were linked to religion and Shakespeare’s masterpieces: from the end of the 1960s, his works have been elegant, rich in details, full of narration and sensitive.

An example of such a perfect structure can be found in Romeo and Juliet, a moving, thrilling and tear-jerking tragedy which landed him a David di Donatello Award, as well as both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture and Best Director. Zeffirelli also borrowed inspiration from Shakespeare for the production of Hamlet, with Glenn Close and Mel Gibson, and The Taming Of The Shrew, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Thanks to his adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, he was the first Italian national to receive an honorary knighthood for services to the British art, in 2004.

In the 1970s, his faith influenced his works. Zeffirelli was one of the few directors close to the Vatican, and he produced the story of Saint Francis, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, in which poverty was the key of the entire movie. The filmmaker  also directed Jesus of Nazareth, a television mini-series featuring Anthony Quinn, Olivia Hussey and Robert Powell. The production gave a description of the Christ that was widely appreciated by the public.

Zeffirelli was also fond of politics, and even tried his hand at it: in the 1950s, when the majority of artists followed the left wing, the director went against the tide, and in 1994 he was elected Senator in Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. However, his politic adventure did not satisfy him, as he was not able to influence culture as much as he wished to and open it to everyone.

Unfortunately politics is a human beings’ luxury. A man believes to be able to establish himself beyond the capabilities that everyone has.

He loved to define himself as homosexual — not “gay”, as he abhorred this inelegant and vulgar term — and his status did not collide with his faith: in fact, the director believed that the sins of the flesh are the same, them being committed whether with a man or a woman.

Franco Zeffirelli was a great artist. During his 60-year career, he has received 14 Oscar nominations. He was an aesthete, a connoisseur, a fierce Fiorentina football club supporter, a true Italian talent and much more.

He was a giant and a genius of our times. Among the masters of his category, he vowed to bring culture to the masses. And although he passed away, his work will never die.