Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was born in Florence, Tuscany, in 12 February, 1923, an illegitimate son born out of wedlock. Very precociously, the young Zeffirelli felt attraction to the arts, and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze, graduating when he was only eighteen years old. He fought as a resistance soldier in the Second World War, eventually sidelining with the allies. When the war was over, he resumed his formal studies, but relegated them as secondary obligation, becoming amazingly attracted to theater after seeing legendary British actor Laurence Olivier in a 1944 movie adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V, which was also directed by Olivier. Despite being a movie, Olivier was predominantly known as a theatre actor, being active in the stage for more than six decades, having participated in more than one hundred different theater productions.
Zeffirelli’s fortunes with prospective artistic career opportunities flourished, when he was introduced to famous Italian director Luchino Visconti – acclaimed for masterpieces like 1954 Senso, starring Farley Granger and Alida Valli, and 1963 Il Gattopardo, an adaptation of the famous novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon – that hired him as assistant director for his third feature film, La Terra Trema, released in 1948. It would be nearly two decades, though, for Zeffirelli actually managing to go behind the cameras to work as a director. His first movie was the documentary Florence: Days of Destruction, about a terrible and tragic flood that occurred in 1966 in Zeffirelli’s native city, that was the most devastating in centuries, and killed more than a hundred people. Released the same year, the work was fifty minutes long, and would be the only documentary in the director’s career. In between directing his first film and his entrance in the movie industry, Zeffirelli worked as an assistant for famous Italian directors, like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, acquiring a large amount of experience, that would be extremely beneficial to him in his career as a filmmaker.
This was followed by the movie Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna, largely inspired by the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, the notorious Catholic friar. On the movie, the pious religious deacon is played by an unknown British actor named Graham Faulkner, that was active in the show business for just a little more than a decade. In the movie, his character was named Francesco di Bernardone, which was a mixture of the nickname and the real name of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose birth name was Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, but he was dearly known as Francesco. Al Pacino screen tested for the lead role, but his method acting style was disliked by Zeffirelli. Released in 1972, this movie – contrary to the previous one –, was only moderately received.
After Jesus of Nazareth, Zeffirelli turned to opera productions, directing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci for the Metropolitan Opera House, both in 1978. His next movie was The Champ, an American production starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway and Ricky Schroder. Remake of a 1931 movie of the same name directed by King Vidor – despite being a box office success –, the film was only moderately received by critics, and to this day remains one of the least favorable in the director’s filmography.
From the early eighties to the mid-nineties, Zeffirelli mostly concentrated on opera, although he mixed his two passions in several occasions, adapting several operas to the screen. In 1996, he released Jane Eyre, an adaptation of the famous eponymous novel by English novelist Charlotte Brontë, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt in the main roles. In 1999, he released Tea with Mussolini, a work notable for his semi-autobiographical nature. His last movie was 2002 Callas Forever, a homage he made to honor opera soprano Maria Callas, that died precociously at fifty-three years old from a heart attack, in September 16, 1977. He personally directed her in three operas.
After that, Zeffirelli went into semi-retirement. He was also active for a time in politics, having served as senator for seven years, from 1994 to 2001. He died in his home in Rome, in June 15, ninety-six years old. Fortunately, he leaves a formidable artistic legacy – which overflows very peculiar qualities, like outstanding beauty and marvelous sensibility – that will shine vividly for the decades to come.