The Director's Chair Interviews

Spreading the Wrong Gospel: An Interview with Franco Zeffirelli
by Dan Lybarger
Pitch Weekly, March 13-19, 1999

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Since the 1950s, Italian director Franco Zeffirelli has made his reputation by staging and filming the classics. Shakespeare's plays (The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet) and Verdi's operas (La Traviata and Otello) have inspired him in the past. However, his latest movie, Tea With Mussolini is based on a different but equally dramatic source: his own childhood.

Born in Florence in 1923, Zeffirelli was the illegitimate son of a cloth merchant and a mother who died when he was only six. His early years were made brighter by a group of artistically-inclined English women known as the Scorpioni or "the scorpions." They earned their nickname for their piercing wit. Speaking from New York City, he recalls, "They were all very nice to me. They taught me all the important things in life. One especially, Mary O'Neill (called Mary Wallace in the film and portrayed by Joan Plowright), became kind of a surrogate mother. Sheintroduced me to English. She opened up my eyes to the beauty of literature and the dreams of theatre and toShakespeare."

The Scorpioni taught Zeffirelli to appreciate an outside world and an inner one. "These ladies helped me to understand my own city, my own culture and my own upbringing. If you were born and live in Florence, after awhile you get to be fed up with it. They brought me to see things with new fresh eyes. I'll never forget how they contributed to my growth," he states.

Making a film that captures how the women affected his life still required some invention. "You always have to adjust what really happened," he explains. "First of all, you are no longer that person. So how can you find an actor who can interpret you at that age? It's always an artificial mechanism. Those are things that happened to be, but somebody has to rehash them and make them happen in a different way. Take Lady Hester (played by Maggie Smith) for instance. I don't remember if she was called Hester, but I remember this terrible, fantastic woman. She was the dowager of the community. I remember the many outrageous things she did because she could afford to be arrogant and bossy. I gave this material to John Mortimer (the novelist and playwright who created the Rumpole of the Bailey series), and he created the character. Maggie Smith has done the rest."

If reworking his childhood in the 1930s and '40s onscreen has given him a new story to tell, Zeffirelli says that thefilming provided an unforeseen benefit for the community. He remembers, "There is a very beautiful street inFlorence. You don't see anything now. There is always a wall of tourists, businesses, busses, cars and pollution.Down on the street level is mud, like a snake pit. We cleaned that up like you clean up the floor of a beautifulroom. Suddenly, we saw the city the way it was intended to be. The Florentines kept calling on the phone, 'Come!Come! Come out and see (the street) the way it was!'"

The glowing view Zeffirelli presents of the city may endear him to his hometown, but he has been a controversialfigure. Like the Scorpioni, he frequently states his mind. For example, he has been criticized for his staunch publicopposition to abortion.

Without knowing it, he's also found himself in the middle of a recent dispute involving the Shawnee Mission School Board. Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet is arguably the best movie adaptation of the play (both he and the film received Oscar nominations). It has been part of Shawnee Mission high school English classes for years. However, last January, Phil Ellsworth, the pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship Church in Shawnee, argued in front of a district committee hearing for the film's removal. Because the movie has a fleeting nude scene, he wanted a shorter version to take its place and described the film as "soft porn."

When told how Ellsworth unsuccessfully fought to censor his movie, Zeffirelli reacts with a tone of amusement and disgust. He recalls, "The exact same thing was done in Russia. Romeo and Juliet was the most popular foreign film in the history of the Soviet Union, but they clipped that scene. So if this preacher wants to compare himself to the freedom of mind and culture that the Soviets displayed, he is free to do it. If he gets to a museum, does this man turn his head from a nude painting?"

The director vigorously defends the scene. "This was a boy lying nude on his back on his first and only love scene with the girl he has married. It was a monument to chastity and the beauty of physical love. I don't see why anyone would object to it," he states.

Ironically, the alleged "pornographer" also cowrote and directed the TV-miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, one of themost scripturally accurate and reverent biblical dramas. While a film market dominated by There's SomethingAbout Mary and other lowbrow flicks might seem hostile to Zeffirelli's movies inspired by religion and high culture, the filmmaker says the opposite is true. "You're talking to someone who's done 80 percent of his work based on classical material. I've always found financing and an audience. I've only done two contemporary films in America, The Champ and Endless Love," he says.

He is also quick to praise the work of others who handle the classics well. While he laments that he has not yet seen Baz Luhrmann's take on William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet or Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet, he lauds Ian McKellen's Richard III and especially the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. "It was beautifullydone and cleverly conceived. It's a lightweight film, but it works beautifully," he says. "There's a nice trick with the war of the sexes. You couldn't act unless you were a boy. The girl (Gwyneth Paltrow) would pretend to be a boy. It would have been a big surprise for Shakespeare because he liked boys. He might have found that the boy he brought to bed was really a girl."

In addition to filming historical dramas, Zeffirelli has been making some history of his own. He has served two terms in the Italian Senate and is currently running for a seat on the European Parliament. His platform stressesenvironmental protection, education and cultural preservation.

"I've always been anti-fascist even when I was young," he says. "I fought with the English army during the Italian campaign. After that I remained strongly anti-Communist, because during the partisan times, I saw what the Communists were capable of doing. I have the feeling that people must be part of politics and must contribute to improve the situation of their own country. You can't just watch what happens and complain.

"You have a voice and you have to use it," Zeffirelli adds. "You might be spreading the wrong gospel, but at least you do something."

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