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Franco Zeffirelli, “Jesus of Nazareth” director, dies at 96

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI

Alexey S. Yushenkov/Wikipedia

John Burger - published on 06/15/19 - updated on 06/16/19

Italian filmmaker with a deep interest in opera and stage also did work for the Vatican

Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director whose works included “Jesus of Nazareth,” died Saturday at his home in Rome. He was 96.

“Jesus of Nazareth,” a 1977 television miniseries with Robert Powell as Christ, came five years after “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” a movie about St. Francis of Assisi.

Zeffirelli directed productions of Shakespeare in London, and many of his films were screen adaptations of the Bard’s plays, including the 1968 “Romeo and Juliet.” He was nominated for the Academy Award for best director for the film, which received Oscars for best cinematography and best costume design. Other Zeffirelli adaptations of Shakespeare included the 1990 film “Hamlet,” with Mel Gibson in the title role.

“Romeo and Juliet” cast two teenage actors in the lead roles—Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting—and the film “thrilled millions of young viewers who had been untouched by the bard,” in the assessment of a New York Times obituary.

The grandson of a conductor, Zeffirelli had a deep love for opera and became known for several ground-breaking productions. He also directed a 1986 film version of Verdi’s “Otello” starring Plácido Domingo. He made a 1988 biopic of the conductor Arturo Toscanini and a 2002 movie “Callas Forever,” about the operatic soprano Maria Callas, with whom he worked over the years.

The Associated Press noted that Zeffirelli was “one of the few Italian directors close to the Vatican, and the Church turned to Zeffirelli’s theatrical touch for live telecasts of the 1978 papal installation and the 1983 Holy Year opening ceremonies in St. Peter’s Basilica.”

Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was born February 12, 1923, on the outskirts of Florence after his mother had an extramarital affair. As the story goes, she was unable to give the boy her family name, because of the stigma of out-of-wedlock births, so she chose Zeffiretti, the Italian word for “little breezes,” taken from a Mozart opera of which she was fond. The word was misspelled in the register of births, and Franco became the only person in the world with the surname Zeffirelli, according to his autobiography.

When he was 8 an uncle took him to see an opera for the first time. He was so impressed by stage design that he went home and made cardboard scenes for Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs,” the Times said.

He graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze in 1941 and entered the University of Florence to study art and architecture. During the Second World War, he fought as a partisan before he met up with British soldiers of the 1st Scots Guards and became their interpreter. After the war, he re-entered the University of Florence to continue his studies, but when he saw Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” in 1945, he directed his attention toward theater instead.

Among the highlights of his stage career was a Special Tony Award in 1962 “for designs and direction of the Old Vic’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,'” according to the Internet Movie Database. He wrote the libretto for the Samuel Barber opera “Antony and Cleopatra,” commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1966.

In addition to his work in the arts world, he also had a relatively brief political career. In 1994 Zeffirelli became a member of the Italian senate, representing Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party for seven years.

“Twice elected to the Italian Parliament, Mr. Zeffirelli was an ultraconservative senator, particularly on the issue of abortion,” the Times noted. “In a 1996 New Yorker article, he declared that he would ‘impose the death penalty on women who had abortions.’ He said his extreme views on the subject were colored by the fact that he himself was born out of wedlock despite pressure brought to bear on his mother to terminate her pregnancy.”

“For Zeffirelli, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ was an important project for a number of reasons. A wayward but loyal and even conservative son of the Church, Zeffirelli reportedly put his theatrical design and staging talents at the Church’s service for a number of papal ceremonies and has more than once expressed concern for the Church’s image in the modern media era,” wrote film critic Steven D. Greydanus in 2017. “As Jesus of Nazareth enters its fifth decade, there remains nothing like it: a comprehensive if not exhaustive look at the entire sweep of the Gospel story from the Nativity to the Resurrection, drawing from all four Gospels but significantly influenced by the Old Testament and Jewish tradition as well as Catholic art and imagination.”

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