Director Franco Zeffirelli Has Died At 96

A long career, notable for numerous Shakespearean adaptations

Franco Zeffireli
Franco Zeffirelli in Moscow
Alexey Yushenkov/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / June 15, 2019 4:52 pm

Italian filmmaker and theatre director Franco Zeffirelli has died at the age of 96. This brings to an end a long career, characterized by sumptuous visuals, historical settings, and a penchant for classic works of literature.

According to a New York Times report, the director died at his home in Rome.

For American audiences, he is likely best known for a pair of Shakespeare adaptations: 1968’s Romeo and Juliet and 1990’s Hamlet. He drew on his own family’s history for 1999’s Tea With Mussolini.

The director’s life abounded with contradictions. He worked and had a long romantic relationship with director Luchino Visconti. (Zeffirelli is memorably quoted in a 2006 article about Visconti’s influence on contemporary style.) And his actions during World War II found him fighting fascism in multiple forms. As the New York Times writes in their obituary for him:

He joined Communist partisan forces, first fighting Mussolini’s Fascists and then the occupying Nazis. Captured by the Fascists, he was saved from the firing squad when his interrogator miraculously turned out to be a half brother whom he had never known. The half brother arranged his release.

Later in life Zeffirelli went into politics, a time in office that was characterized in part by his intense opposition to abortion; a 2006 profile in The Guardian called him “a singularly unorthodox conservative.” He was also accused of sexual misconduct in 2018.

Zeffirelli remained active until close to the end of his life. 2017 saw the release of the short film Zeffirelli’s Inferno, an adaptation of Dante’s work that was in the works since the 1970s. And the Franco Zeffirelli International Centre for the Performing Arts opened in Florence that same year, including a rich collection of the director’s expansive archive.

Artists and scholars will have much to ponder there — including the complex legacy of a figure who eludes easy categorization, in both art and life.

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