In 1968, Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli directed his interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He cast unknown actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as his leads, and shot the movie in authentically rustic locations around Europe.
The film-going community was not ready for what greeted them at cinemas. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was, according to Roger Ebert, “the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made”. Audiences were smitten with the film, which went on to win two Academy awards, three Golden Globes, and one BAFTA award.
Zeffirelli understood that his leads, as inexperienced in acting as they were, would struggle with limitations throughout the production of his film. He relied on emphasizing reaction shots, which led to a dreamy, atmospheric quality to the film, and he shortened long stretches of dialogue to help his actors adapt to the material.
It didn’t hurt in the slightest that he was able to cast established, Shakespearean trained actors like Laurence Olivier and Paul Hardwick in other roles.
Romeo and Juliet was by no means Franco Zeffirelli’s only success. In 1967, he directed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Taming of the Shrew. After successfully tackling Shakespeare, he turned his attention to religious films, directing Brother Sun, Sister Moon in 1972, then Jesus of Nazareth in 1977.
For more modern audiences, Zeffirelli cast Mel Gibson in his 1990 adaptation of Hamlet, and in 1996 he adapted the Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre to critical success.
Franco Zeffirelli was a avid lover of the opera, and produced lauded musical productions at the Royal Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera.
Controversies of a Master
Zeffirelli’s religious works drew heavy criticism from conservative religious groups, which accused him of blasphemy in his depiction of Christian figures. Oddly enough, Zeffirelli was himself a highly conservative Roman Catholic, and had been accused of anti-antisemitism several times in his life.
Other areas of controversy in Zeffirelli’s life often stemmed from his staunch support of Catholicism, and the fact that he rarely spoke out against the church. He drew fire from the gay community for backing the church’s stance against LGBTQ+ people, and often called for capital punishment for women who had had an abortion.
As is often the case, it’s best to separate the artist from the art. Franco Zeffirelli was a fantastic filmmaker, with a auteur’s eye for filmcraft. His work inspired generation of filmmakers, and in many ways changed the way the film community approaches Shakespeare.
Franco Zeffirelli passed away in his home in Rome after suffering from a lingering illness. He was 96 years old.