Clerical sexual abuse of minors; sexual harassment and assault in the film industry; Catholic traditionalist and modernizing impulses; homosexuality and the definition of marriage; populism vs. elitism; strict anti-abortion laws: Somehow the life of Franco Zeffirelli, who died June 15 at age 96, touched on all these flashpoints of contemporary dialogue and debate — and more besides.
For Catholics and other Christians, the contradiction between Zeffirelli’s faith and the themes of his religious films on the one hand and his openly homosexual lifestyle on the other raise perennial questions about the mysterious relationship of art and the artist.
Like many celebrities with professional longevity, Zeffirelli’s assets included a talent for reinventing himself in various arenas: theater, opera, cinema and politics.
Many remember him best for his Shakespeare adaptations, especially his breakthrough 1968 Romeo and Juliet starring Olivia Hussey — which introduced generations of high-schoolers to the Bard and made countless English teachers uncomfortable with its brief nudity — and his 1990 Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.
In the Catholic world, Zeffirelli is best known for his sprawling 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, a fixture of Easter season broadcasts for decades, as well as his less successful 1972 film about St. Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
His greatest success was in the opera world. Many Americans think of opera as inaccessible and elitist, but Zeffirelli was a populist who believed that enduring art is enjoyable and accessible. The lavish, grandiose visual style and romantic classicist sensibility he brought to long-running productions of La Traviata and La Bohème were aimed at pleasing the masses, not the critics.
“It’s like somebody decides that the Sistine Chapel is out of fashion,” he once remarked about avant-garde critical tastes. “They go there and make something à la Warhol. You don’t like it? Okay, fine, but let’s have it for future generations.”
He brought the same populist sensibility to Shakespeare, above all in his breakout success Romeo and Juliet, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of 1968 by casting teenagers in the lead roles and playing up the generation-gap theme. The film became a global sensation and the highest-grossing Shakespeare adaptation at that time.
The following year Zeffirelli was hospitalized after being seriously injured in a car wreck. Crediting God with his survival, he developed a renewed commitment to his Catholic faith and vowed to dedicate his work to God.
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