Director Franco Zeffirelli's faith inspired his best movies

(COMMENTARY) The death of Franco Zeffirelli on Saturday at the age of 96 marked the end of a movie-making era. The famed and prolific Italian director was known for lots of things — his joy of living, extravagant lifestyle and love for the opera and William Shakespeare.

What he will also be remembered for is his deep Roman Catholic faith. He was also a man truly blessed by God. The world may have never have come to know his art had he not escaped death twice during his life.

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

Zeffirelli poured his soul into his movies, particularly the religious-themed ones he produced during the 1970s. His most famous was Jesus of Nazareth, a 1977 television mini-series shown around the world. To this day, actor Robert Powell is the image of what Jesus should look like in the minds of many believers. That was how immense Zeffirelli’s impact on faith and our culture.

The film captured the essence of Jesus’ life and the suffering and sacrifice (see the clip above) he ultimately had to endure during his final days.

For a TV movie, Zeffirelli was able to assemble an all-star cast worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. The masterpiece film, which aired in two parts, included actors Rod Steiger (who played Pontius Pilate), Laurence Olivier (Nicodemus), Christopher Plummer (Herod Antipas) and Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalene).  

The movie is so famous that, four decades later, it continues to be shown on TV during Easter season.

His other famous religious-themed film had been released five years earlier, also to much fanfare, and focused on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, starred British actor Graham Faulkner as Francis and recounted the saint’s humble life.

The Associated Press, in their obituary, noted Zeffirelli was “one of the few Italian directors close to the Vatican, and the church turned to Zeffirelli’s theatrical touch for live telecasts of the 1978 papal installation and the 1983 Holy Year opening ceremonies in St. Peter’s Basilica.”

Zeffirelli also famously directed opera productions at the Metropolitan in New York and Shakespeare in London. He was nominated for an Oscar for his 1968 movie Romeo and Juliet, which received Academy Awards for best cinematography and best costume design. Years later, Zeffirelli joked that he would have preferred that Fiorentina, the Italian soccer team he cheered for, had won a national title over an Oscar. Zeffirelli’s other famous adaptations of the Bard’s work included the 1990 film Hamlet with Mel Gibson.


Italian critics often chided Zeffirelli for his Catholic faith. He would refute those critics, saying they didn’t like him because they were left-wingers politically.

Although Zeffirelli lived and died in Rome, but he will be honored in his native Florence on Tuesday when his funeral will be held at the 15th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

He was born out of wedlock on February 12, 1923, just outside Florence, the result of his mother having an extramarital affair. Zeffirelli, who later became an ardent supporter of the anti-abortion movement, recalled in several interviews over the years that his mother wanted to terminate the pregnancy. She only decided against it after an aunt talked his mother out of it.

Unable to give the boy her family’s surname, she chose zeffiretti — the Italian word for “little breezes” — inspired by a Mozart opera she liked. The word, however, was accidentally misspelled on his birth certificate. Zeffirelli would later say he was the only person on the planet with his surname.

Later in life, Zeffirelli also found a second career as a politician. In 1994, Zeffirelli was elected to the Italian senate as a member of Forza Italia, the party founded by Silvio Berlusconi. He quickly earned a reputation for being a conservative senator, especially on the issue of abortion.

As The New York Times noted, “In a 1996 New Yorker article, he declared that he would ‘impose the death penalty on women who had abortions.’”

Zeffirelli’s mother would die when he was only six, and he went to live with a cousin. He only met his father as a teenager. He grew up befriending many English expatriates living in Florence — an experience that helped him gain an appreciation for English literature — that inspired his semi-autobiographical movie Tea with Mussolini. The movie — starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench — was released in 1999 when Zeffirelli was 76.

His second brush with death had come during World War II. With Allied forces making their way through Italy, Zeffirelli worked as a translator for British soldiers based in Tuscany. He was ultimately captured by fascist forces — and later saved from being put in front of a firing squad when his interrogator turned out to be a half-brother he didn’t even know existed.

Zeffirelli was also gay, but didn’t speak much about t publicly until he was in his 70s. In his 2006 autobiography, Zeffirelli wrote that he considered himself “homosexual” — arguing the term “gay” was crude. As a child attending Catholic school, Zeffirelli claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a priest, who later begged for his forgiveness. He would go on to say that gay experiences “are not always bad for boys.”

Zefirelli never had any biological children — something he had come to regret.

“I missed my father when I was a child, I craved becoming a father myself,” he told The New York Times in 2009. “But the facts of life prevented me from doing it.”

He would later adopt two boys. What Zeffirelli also fathered were several religious movies that not only entertained and educated, but helped evangelize and bring to life the Bible to the masses. Zeffirelli may be dead, but his movies will live forever.