12 February 2016

Franco Zeffirelli – film director

Shakespeare adaptations made director a household name

Franco Zeffirelli excelled in adapting classic plays and operas for the big screen
Franco Zeffirelli excelled in adapting
classic plays and operas for the big screen
The film, opera and television director Franco Zeffirelli was born on this day in Florence in 1923.

He is best known for his adaptations of Shakespeare plays for the big screen, notably The Taming of the Shrew (1967), with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Hamlet (1990) with Mel Gibson. 

Boldly, he cast two teenagers in the title roles of Romeo and Juliet and filmed the tragedy against the backdrop of 15th century buildings in Serravalle in the Veneto region. His film became the standard adaptation of the play and has been shown to thousands of students over the years.

His later films include Jane Eyre (1996) and Tea with Mussolini (1999), while he directed several adaptations of operas for the cinema, including I Pagliacci (1981), Cavalleria rusticana (1982), Otello (1986), and La bohème (2008). 

Zeffirelli's name was, in fact, an invention, and a misspelled one to boot.

He was the child of Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer, as a result of an affair with a wool and silk dealer, Ottorino Corsi. Since both his parents were married to other partners, his registered surname could neither be Garosi or Corsi. Instead, his mother intended him to be registered as Zeffiretti - the Italian for 'little breezes' - in a reference to a line in Mozart's opera, Idomeneo. However, it was misspelled in the register and he became Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli.
Zeffirelli worked with Luchino Visconti in his early days of film direction
Zeffirelli worked with Luchino Visconti
in his early days of film direction

Alaide died when Franco was six and he subsequently was looked after within expatriate English community in Florence, an experience that later inspired his film Tea with Mussolini, which was semi-autobiographical.

Zeffirelli studied art and architecture at Florence University before fighting as a partisan during the Second World War.

After the war he worked as a scenic painter in Florence until he was hired by Luchino Visconti, initially as an actor and stage director in his theatre company, and subsequently as assistant director on his 1948 film La terra trema (The Earth Trembles). He also worked with directors Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini in Italy's booming post-war cinema industry.

His focus then switched more to stage design, particularly for opera. His first major design for opera was a 1952-53 production of Gioachino Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri for La Scala in Milan. He maintained his link with opera in theatrical and arena settings throughout his career, working on notable productions of La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Bohème, Tosca, Falstaff, and Carmen. He became a friend of Maria Callas, eventually directing her in La Traviata in America and in Tosca at the Royal Opera House in London, with Tito Gobbi.
A 17-year-old Olivia Hussey in Zeffirelli's Romeo and  Juliet, which established the director's reputation
A 17-year-old Olivia Hussey in Zeffirelli's Romeo and
which established the director's reputation

The Taming of the Shrew was Zeffirelli's first film as director in 1967. It was originally planned that Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni would take the starring roles but to help fund production it was decided that Taylor and Burton would give the film a higher profile. 

Zeffirelli's major breakthrough came the year after with Romeo and Juliet (1968), which earned $14.5 million dollars at the box office in the United States and made Zeffirelli's name, earning him a nomination for Best Director at the Oscars, although at the same time it set a standard that some critics believe he never quite met in his subsequent work, for all his success. 

As well as Shakespeare adaptations, Zeffirelli made a number of films with religious themes, such as a life of St. Francis of Assisi entitled Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), then his TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), although these attracted criticism from some religious groups for what they perceived as the blasphemous representation of biblical figures. 

Zeffirelli, who received the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1977, is a former senator for the Forza Italia political party and received an honorary knighthood in Britain in 2004. 

UPDATE: Franco Zeffirelli died in Rome in June 2019 at the age of 96.

The Florence floods of 1966 did huge damage to precious art treasures
The Florence floods of 1966 did huge damage
to precious art treasures

Travel tip:

The University of Florence can trace its origins back to the 14th century, but the modern University, where Zeffirelli studied, dates back to 1859, when a number of higher studies institutions were grouped together. When his native Florence was flooded in the 1960s, causing millions of pounds worth of damage to precious art and literary treasures and the buildings housing them, Zeffirelli made a documentary film, Florence: Days of Destruction, to raise funds for the disaster appeal.

A typical Serravalle palace

Travel tip:

Serravalle, where Zeffirelli filmed Romeo and Juliet, was combined with the town of Ceneda nearby and renamed Vittorio in 1866 in honour of King Vittorio Emanuele II. After the last decisive battle of the First World War had taken place nearby, Vittorio was renamed Vittorio Veneto. The small town of Serravalle is the more picturesque of the two places that make up Vittorio Veneto and its fine 15th century palazzi and pretty arcaded streets made a wonderful backdrop for Zeffirelli’s film.  

More reading:

Why Luchino Visconti was called 'the aristocrat of Italian cinema'

The genius of Vittorio De Sica

Sophia Loren - glamorous star is one of just three Italian Oscar-winning actors

Also on this day:

1602: The birth of Baroque painter Michelangelo Cerquozzi

1799: The death of biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani, pioneer of artificial insemination

1944: The birth of actress and singer Claudia Mori

(Picture credits: Zeffirelli in 2008 by Alexey Yushenkov; Serravalle palace by Paolo Steffan; via Wikimedia Commons)


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