Italy Cinema Icon Franco Zeffirelli Unveils New Book

From Zeffirelli's book "Francesco"

The 91-year-old director of "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Taming of the Shrew" held court with reporters at his villa on the outskirts of Rome.

ROME – Acclaimed Italian film director and culture icon Franco Zeffirelli can’t stop working, even at age 91.

In a rare move, Zeffirelli invited a handful of journalists to his villa on the outskirts of Rome this week to present a new coffee table book, Francesco, based on stunning photos from his 1972 classic drama Brother Sun, Sister Moon (Fratello sole, sorella luna), which dramatizes the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The book is in part an homage to the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who named himself after the 13th-century saint when he became Pope Francis last year. Zeffirelli said he would present the pontiff with a copy of the book at a later date.

“This new pope has made a deep impression on me,” said Zeffirelli, who is best remembered outside Italy for his 1968 production of Romeo and Juliet, which was nominated for an Oscar and, adjusted for inflation, is the most commercially successful film adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s plays.

His other noted film productions include 1967’s The Taming of the Shrew, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the main roles, and the Jesus of Nazareth miniseries from 1977, which remains a Christmas broadcast tradition in many countries. His second-to-last feature film, Tea With Mussolini, from 1999, was an award-winning semi-autobiographical drama about Zeffirelli’s youth during the rise of fascism in Italy.

At the press event, Zeffirelli – known also as a film producer, an opera director and designer, a writer and critic, and a senator for eight years – held court in his spacious villa off Rome’s historic Appian Way in a way few Italian industry figures could. With his dog Dolly on his lap, he sat surrounded by artistic treasures and dozens of framed photos of famous friends and acquaintances ranging from legendary entertainers such as Sophia Loren, Taylor, Liza Minnelli and Anna Magnani to more polarizing political leaders like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin of Russia. He held those gathered in rapt attention for more than an hour.

After making a few remarks about the book and the film, the event became a session of reporters asking about Zeffirelli’s views on a wide array of topics. Zeffirelli, who has never been shy about stating his mind, was happy to oblige:

• What did he think of Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)? “I haven’t seen it and am not particularly drawn to see it,” he said.

• If he could make one more film, what would it be about? “I always thought I would have liked to make a film about the greatest period in Florence, in the 1500s.”

• What did he think about Italy’s political and economic troubles? “Don’t ask me about that; I might faint.”

• What does he think about the new post-modern opera house in [Zeffirelli’s native] Florence? “It’s ugly.”

• Who were some of the people he entertained in that same room? “Oh, many. Barbara Streisand, Mick Jagger…” And the queen? someone asked, referring to Queen Elizabeth II, who was in Rome that day to meet the pope. “No, no,” Zeffirelli said. “When I met the queen, I had to go to her.”

Twitter: @EricJLyman