Franco Zeffirelli.—AFP
Franco Zeffirelli.—AFP

ROME: Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who delighted audiences around the world with his romantic vision and extravagant productions, most famously captured in his cinematic “Romeo and Juliet” and the miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” died on Saturday at 96.

While Zeffirelli was most popularly known for his films, his name was also inextricably linked to the theatre and opera. He produced classics for the world’s most famous opera houses, from Milan’s venerable La Scala to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and plays for London and Italian stages. Zeffirelli’s son Luciano said his father died at home in Rome.

“He had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way,” he said.

Zeffirelli made it his mission to make culture accessible to the masses, often seeking inspiration in Shakespeare and other literary greats for his films, and producing operas aimed at TV audiences. Claiming no favourites, Zeffirelli once likened himself to a sultan with a harem of three: film, theatre and opera.

“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,” Zeffirelli said in a 2006 interview.

From his out-of-wedlock birth on the outskirts of Florence on Feb 12, 1923, Zeffirelli rose to be one of Italy’s most prolific directors, working with such opera greats as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Maria Callas, as well as Hollywood stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Mel Gibson, Cher and Judi Dench.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was “profoundly moved by the death of Zeffirelli, who was an Italian ambassador of cinema, art and beauty.” Throughout his career, Zeffirelli took risks and his audacity paid off at the box office. His screen success in America was a rarity among Italian filmmakers.

He 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. Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi also tapped him to direct a few high-profile events.

But Zeffirelli was best known outside Italy for his colourful, softly-focused romantic films. His 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” brought Shakespeare’s famous story to a new and appreciative generation, and his 1973 “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” told the life of St. Francis in parables.

“Romeo and Juliet” set box-office records in the United States, though it was made with two unknown actors, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. The film, which cost $1.5 million, grossed $52 million and became one of the most successful Shakespearian movies ever.

A year earlier, he directed Taylor and Burton in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” leaving his distinctive mark on world cinema.

In the 1970s, Zeffirelli’s focus shifted from the romantic to the spiritual. His 1977 made-for-television “Life of Jesus” became an instant classic with its portrayal of a Christ who seemed authentic and relevant. Shown around the world, the film earned more than $300 million.

Where Zeffirelli worked, controversy was never far away. In 1978, he threatened to leave Italy for good because of harsh attacks against him and his art by Italian leftists, who saw Zeffirelli as an exponent of Hollywood.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2019