Spreading the Wrong Gospel:
An Interview with Franco Zeffirelli
March 13, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the March 13-19, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly.
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. She
introduced me to English. She opened up my eyes to the
beauty of literature and the dreams of theatre and to
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 a
while 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 me, 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 the
filming provided an unforeseen benefit for the community.
He remembers, "There is a very beautiful street in
Florence. 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 beautiful
room. 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 controversial
figure. Like the Scorpioni, he frequently states his mind.
For example, he has been criticized for his staunch public
opposition 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
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
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
Ironically, the alleged "pornographer" also cowrote and
directed the TV-miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, one of the
most scripturally accurate and reverent biblical dramas.
While a film market dominated by There's Something
About 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
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 beautifully
done 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 stresses
environmental protection, education and cultural
"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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