Ciao to maestro director Franco Zeffirelli

Italian film director Franzo Zeffirelli has died in Rome at the age of 96.
Italian film director Franzo Zeffirelli has died in Rome at the age of 96.

Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who delighted audiences around the world with his romantic vision and extravagant productions, most famously captured in his cinematic Romeo and Juliet and the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, has died at 96.

While Zeffirelli was most popularly known for his films, his name was also inextricably linked to the theatre and opera. He produced classics for the world's most famous opera houses, from Milan's venerable La Scala to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and plays for London and Italian stages.

Zeffirelli's son Luciano said his father died at home in Rome on Saturday.

Zeffirelli made it his mission to make culture accessible to the masses, often seeking inspiration in Shakespeare and other literary greats for his films, and producing operas aimed at TV audiences. Claiming no favourites, Zeffirelli once likened himself to a sultan with a harem of three: film, theatre and opera.

"I am not a film director. I am a director who uses different instruments to express his dreams and his stories - to make people dream," Zeffirelli told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview.

From his out-of-wedlock birth in Florence on February 12, 1923, Zeffirelli rose to be one of Italy's most prolific directors, working with such opera greats as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Maria Callas, as well as Hollywood stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Mel Gibson, Cher and Judi Dench.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was "profoundly moved by the death of Zeffirelli, who was an Italian ambassador of cinema, art and beauty".

Throughout his career, Zeffirelli took risks - and his audacity paid off at the box office. His screen success in America was a rarity among Italian filmmakers.

Zeffirelli was best known outside Italy for his softly-focused romantic films. His 1968 Romeo and Juliet brought Shakespeare's famous story to a new generation, and his 1973 Brother Sun, Sister Moon, told the life of St Francis in parables.

Romeo and Juliet set box-office records in the US. The film, which cost $US1.5 million, grossed $US52m and became one of the most successful Shakespearian movies.

A year earlier, he directed Taylor and Burton in an iconic performance in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

In the 1970s, Zeffirelli's focus shifted from the romantic to the spiritual. His Life of Jesus became an instant classic with its portrayal of a Christ who seemed authentic and relevant. Shown around the world, the film earned more than $US300m.

In 1978, he threatened to leave Italy because of attacks against him and his art by Italian leftists, who saw Zeffirelli as an exponent of Hollywood.

Piqued by American criticism of his 1981 box office success Endless Love, starring Brooke Shields, Zeffirelli said he might never make another film in the US.

In his autobiography, Zeffirelli recounted how his mother attended her husband's funeral pregnant with another man's child. Unable to give the baby either her name or his father's, she tried to name him Zeffiretti, after an aria in Mozart's Idomeneo. But a typographical error made it Zeffirelli, making him "the only person in the world with Zeffirelli as a name, thanks to my mother's folly".

His mother died of tuberculosis when he was six, and Zeffirelli went to live with his father's cousin, whom he affectionately called Zia (Aunt) Lide.

Living in Zia Lide's house and getting weekly visits from his father, Zeffirelli developed the passions that would shape his life. The first was for opera, after seeing Wagner's Walkuere at age eight or nine in Florence. The second was a love of English culture and literature.

His experiences with the British expatriate community under fascism, and their staunch disbelief that they would be victimised by Benito Mussolini's regime, were at the heart of the semi-autobiographical 1991 film Tea with Mussolini.

He remained an Anglophile, and received an honorary British knighthood in 2004.

Zeffirelli served with the partisans during World War II and later acted as an interpreter for British troops. He turned to acting at 20 when he joined an experimental troupe in Florence.

Zeffirelli, a bachelor, said he considered himself a homosexual instead of using the term 'gay', a word he detested.

Zeffirelli worked with Luchino Visconti's theatrical company in Rome, where he showed a flair for dramatic staging techniques in A Streetcar Named Desire and Troilus and Cressida. He later served as assistant director under Italian film masters Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica.

In 1950, he began a long association with lyric theatre, working as a director, set designer and costumist, and bringing new life to works by his favourites: Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi. Over the next decade, he staged dozens of operas, romantic melodramas and contemporary works in Italian and other European theatres, eventually earning a reputation as one of the world's best directors of musical theatre.

Both La Scala and New York's Metropolitan Opera later hosted Zeffirelli's staging of La Boheme.

His first film in 1958, a comedy he wrote called Camping, had limited success.

Zeffirelli returned to theatre in 1961 with an innovative interpretation of Romeo and Juliet at London's Old Vic and he later used it as the basis of the 1968 film.

When Zeffirelli directed La Traviata on film with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo in the lead roles, he found critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and received Oscar nominations for costuming, scenography and artistic direction.

Zeffirelli often turned his talents toward his native city. In 1983, he wrote a historical portrait of Florence during the 15th and 16th centuries. During the disastrous 1966 Florence floods, Zeffirelli produced a well-received documentary on the damage done to the city and its art.

"I feel more like a Florentine than an Italian," Zeffirelli once said. "A citizen of a Florence that was once the capital of Western civilisation."

Australian Associated Press