Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019)

We were sad to hear of the recent death of Franco Zeffirelli, one of the best known Italian directors and producers of film and opera of the 20th century. Hugely influential and iconic, he stood at the heart of Italian film for decades.

Born Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli, he was the illegitimate child of a fashion designer and Florentine wool and silk merchant. After the death of his mother when he was six, he was brought up by the English expatriate community in Florence, who took him under their wing – this part of his story was immortalised in his semi-autobiographical film Tea with Mussolini, set in the pre-war Florence of the “scorpioni” (the English community there, represented by the inspirational Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Joan Plowright) and in the Tuscany of the war years as war took hold. He enrolled to study art at the University of Florence, and when war broke out he joined the partisans, later acting as translator to the occupying British forces. After the war he turned towards the theatre, inspired by seeing Laurence Olivier in Henry V, and it was whilst working as a scenic painter that he met Luchino Visconti who was to have a profound influence on him. He worked in London and New York, designing and directing plays, and then turned to film, directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Taming of the Shrew. In 1968 he directed Romeo and Juliet – hugely popular and a massive box-office hit. From Shakespeare he moved on to other themes, directing such films as Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about St Francis of Assisi and St Clare, and the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. Continue reading