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
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.