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After a long and intense career between cinema, theatre and opera, Italian director Franco Zeffirelli dies at 96 in Rome. Born in Florence on 12 February 1923, his last work is a new “Traviata” that will open the opera season at the Arena of Verona on June 21.

Zeffirelli is the only Italian director who obtained the Knighthood of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 2004. He loved to define himself as the offspring of a workshop that had Luchino Visconti as his first master. He had just graduated at the Academy of Fine Arts when he curated the stage design for “The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida” directed by Visconti (1949). Zeffirelli had a long, passionate, and stormy relationship with the Venetian maestro. He was there when Visconti directed La terra trema, Beautiful and his masterpiece Senso. Making the most out of this partnership, Zeffirelli found his economic independence and career path. After breaking up with him, Zeffirelli devoted himself to opera and Maria Callas.

He then directs “The Italian Girl in Algiers”, “Cinderella”, “The Elixir of Love”, “The Turk in Italy”, “Cecchina”, “Mignon”, “Don Pasquale”, “Manon Lescaut”, and “Lucia of Lammermoor.” By the end of the 1950s he’s a successful theatre director, and in 1957 he debuts in cinema with the comedy Camping. After that, a Shakespearian adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film was universally acclaimed, and this led him to embark on another adaptation from Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. This becomes the greatest success of his career, with four Oscar nominations and two actual winnings (Best Cinematography and Best Costumes). In 1966 he shoots the documentary To Florence, on the tragic flood that struck the city, narrated by Richard Burton. In the meantime, he keeps on working for theatre and the opera (“Hamlet” starring Giorgio Albertazzi, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” starring Enrico Maria Salerno and Sarah Ferrati, “La lupa” starring Anna Magnani).

In 1970s he directs two religious-inspired films: Brother Sun, Sister Moon on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi; and the TV series Jesus of Nazareth, funded by the Vatican at the express request of Pope Paul VI. He moves to Hollywood at the end of the decade. Here he shoots two melodramas that receive mixed critical response: The Champ starring Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway, and Endless Love, marking the silver screen debut of Tom Cruise. Following titles include: Young Toscanini (a divisive biopic that got criticized in Venice in 1988), a very modern Hamlet (1990) starring Mel Gibson, Sparrow (1994) adapted from Giovanni Verga’s book, an elegant version of Jane Eyre (1996), and the autobiographical Tea with Mussolini (1992). In 2002 he directs the biopic Callas Forever starring Fanny Ardant and Gabriel Garko, a commemoration of the last months in the life of the famous soprano.

In 1994 Zeffirelli is elected at the Italian parliament for the centre-right party Forza Italia. The accolades he received throughout his career are relatively few compared to the great success he enjoyed: no big festival and no Oscar (despite a total of 14 nominations for his films). In the past few years, he has lived in a detached silence surrounded by the love of a few friends and his adoptive sons in his beautiful Roman house and the villa on the Amalfi coast. He managed to see his last, strongly-desired masterpiece : the Foundation for the Arts and the Performing Arts that bears his name, located in Florence and designed to house the treasures of his artistic life.

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