Franco Zeffirelli, the famed film director and film, television and opera producer, died on June 15, 2019, in Rome at the age of 96. He was born out of wedlock near Florence, Italy, in 1923. His mother, a widow, was not able to give him her married surname or that of his father, so she gave him the name “Zeffirelli.” The story of him being named after a word in a Mozart opera seems to be one of those myths that grows up around famous people.
Zeffirelli was raised by a close relative after the death of his mother when he was just 6 years old. He graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence in 1941 and enrolled in the University of Florence to study architecture. He learned to speak English well. His education was interrupted by World War II when he fought as a partisan and then became an interpreter for the British army. After the war, he decided to study theater and became a scene painter and assi-stant director for Luchino Visconti’s 1948 “La Terra Trema.” He and Visconti had a long love affair and lived together for several years. Zeffirelli worked with directors Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini and continued to design sets for plays, some of which he directed. He then redirected his efforts to cinema.
Zeffirelli, a Catholic whose faith influenced his work, was an enigma. He was sexually abused by a priest at a young age but said, even though the priest asked forgiveness, he was unharmed by the abuse. He was also an active homosexual who rejected the term “gay” as vulgar. Notwithstanding his lifestyle, Zeffirelli was friends with Pope Paul VI and met with Pope Francis in 2016 to present a copy of his book Francesco with photos from the set of the film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” According to the Associated Press, Zeffirelli was “one of the few Italian directors close to the Vatican and the church turned to Zeffirelli’s theatrical touch for the live telecasts of the 1978 papal installation and the 1983 Holy Year opening ceremonies in St Peter’s Basilica.”