PROFILE: Zeffirelli, the modern maestro of past masterpieces

Italy's Franco Zeffirelli, who died Saturday aged 96, was one of Europe's foremost film directors, turning classics by Shakespeare and Verdi into modern gems, most famously in his Oscar-nominated "Romeo and Juliet" (1968).

PROFILE: Zeffirelli, the modern maestro of past masterpieces
The film poster for 1968's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Paramount Pictures.
With a career spanning more than 60 years and more than 40 films, plays and operas, Zeffirelli worked with a dazzling array of stars from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to Glenn Close and “La Diva” Maria Callas.
“Few Italians since Fellini have had such an impact in the United States as Franco Zeffirelli,” the New York Times said in 2009, reviewing his Met production of “La Boheme”.
As well as his work with Hollywood A-listers, the cultural icon has also collaborated with some of the 20th century's greatest voices, including Callas and Placido Domingo, in the world's most prestigious venues.
His Romeo and Juliet was described by the film critic Roger Ebert as “the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made”. 
In the 1970s he expanded his repertoire to biblical subjects, notably in the all-star mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” with Laurence Olivier, co-written with English novelist Anthony Burgess.
The series starred no fewer than seven Oscar winners.
Another religious theme was Brother Sun, Sister Moon, on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In later years Zeffirelli's life would provide inspiration in “Tea with Mussolini” (1999) starring Cher, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith as British and American women raising a young Italian boy in Florence through and after the Second World War. Dench also starred in a London theatre production of his Romeo and Juliet. 
Life-changing love affair
Born in the Tuscan city on February 12, 1923, Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was the illegitimate son of a married fashion designer who died during his childhood. His father, a likewise married textiles trader, only recognised him in his adolescence.
His mother came up with the name of “Zeffiretti” — “little breezes” — named after an aria from Mozart's opera, Idomeneo.
In the register of births that was corrupted to Zeffirelli. Both of his parents died when he was young and he was taken in by his aunt. As a youngster, Zeffirelli was fascinated by casts of travelling actors performing in local villages, sparking his love of theatre and also music.
He studied architecture and then fought with the partisans against the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II. During the conflict he also became an interpreter for the Scots Guards, a regiment of the British Army. It was that connection, as well as his contribution to the arts, that earned him in 2004 an honorary knighthood from Tony Blair's government.
After the war he met Italian film giant Luchino Visconti. The encounter proved decisive. Visconti, one of cinema's greatest names, hired him as assistant on three of his films.
Visconti was his mentor and became his lover. Their affair was, in Zeffirelli's telling, tumultuous, volcanic and ended brutally, but the union propelled and influenced his artistic career.
Buddies with Berlusconi
An elegant, exuberant maestro in the world of art, Zeffirelli's political trajectory has been more jagged and controversial. 
From 1994 to 2001 he worked as a deputy in Italy's upper house for the centre-right Forza Italia party of tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, whom he defended amid escalating stories of his sex antics.
“What is the scandal?” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 2009. “I think it's a joke. It's ridiculous… Berlusconi is a man that likes a lot women.”
Zeffirelli with Berlusconi in 2004. Photo: AFP
A homosexual and Catholic, Zeffirelli opposed an increasingly liberal sexual climate and came out against any recognition of gay couples.
In 2004 he advised audiences against seeing Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ”, which he described as “a step backwards of several centuries” in its portrayal of Jews.
In another unusual twist, he agreed in 2007 to become an image consultant to Pope Benedict XVI, finding the conservative pontiff's robes “too sumptuous and flashy”.
In an interview in March he told with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera he named two major projects he regretted not having been able to take on.
One was a film adaptation of Dane's Inferno; and the other was a film on life and works of the quintessential Renaissance dynasty, the Medicis.

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Venice Film Festival fights for impact amid coronavirus curbs and cancellations

What if you threw a film festival and nobody came?

Venice Film Festival fights for impact amid coronavirus curbs and cancellations
File photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
That, in essence, is the challenge facing organisers of this year's Venice Film Festival, the glamorous annual competition where stars, critics, photographers and industry executives mingle on the bustling Lido, overlooking sandy beaches and the blue Adriatic.
Provided, of course, it's a normal year.
But in 2020, the world's oldest film festival is forced to walk a tightrope between preserving its lustre as the premier launch pad for Academy Award-winning films, while safely navigating the coronavirus crisis and averting the controversy over gender inequality that has dogged it in the past.
Opening Wednesday and continuing until September 12, the prestigious event now in its 77th year will be the first international film festival since the pandemic shuttered competitions around the world.
It has put in place a host of safety measures — from limited seating to thermal scanners, to a fan-free red carpet — to protect attendees as Covid-19 cases continue to climb in Italy and around the world.
In July, festival director Alberto Barbera declared the event “saved” as he announced the 18 films among the approximately 60 presented that would vie for the top award, the Golden Lion.
He promised that the festival would preserve the “liveliness of contemporary cinema”.
Despite its scaled-down size with theatre capacity reduced by about half, La Biennale di Venezia takes on greater importance this year due to the cancellation of rival film festivals across the globe, among them the glitzy Cannes Film Festival on the Cote d'Azur in France.
But just days ahead of the opening, organisers are scrambling to navigate uncharted territory amid uncertain attendance and last-minute cancellations.     
Whereas Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson provided the star firepower at last year's festival, ongoing travel restrictions — especially a travel ban from the United States into Europe — mean that most Hollywood elites will be no shows, along with actors and directors from China, India and South America.
Those arriving from outside Europe's Schengen zone will have to submit results of a Covid-19 test just before their departure, with a second test carried out in Venice, meaning that some attendees may have to cancel.
Earlier this week, the festival announced that American actor Matt Dillon would be a last-minute substitute on the jury for Romanian director Crisit Puiu.
No reason was given for Puiu's absence, but industry trade magazines noted he had given a speech earlier this month in which he said it was “inhumane” to watch movies with a mask on.
Those confirmed as attending include, among others, British actress Tilda Swinton, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, US director Oliver Stone and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.
More women directors
The uncertain lineup of stars and dearth of top names leaves Australian actress Cate Blanchett, president of the jury, to take up the mantle of celebrity — and social activism — at Venice.
Blanchett was the leader of the #MeToo women's march up the red carpet steps at Cannes two years ago that sought to bring attention to the lack of parity and diversity in cinema.
The presence of Blanchett helps raise such awareness while the festival seeks to stanch criticism levelled in recent years over the glaring lack of women directors in festivals' top lineups.
The Oscar-winning headliner told Variety magazine on Thursday that this year's eight women directors in the main competition lineup of Venice is “a direct response to the positive advances that have been made this year”.
Others say it is too early to tell whether a page has turned.
“It's all about being consistent and diligent and believing that women make movies as well as men, and using that in the way you programme,” said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of “Women and Hollywood”, which advocates for gender diversity and inclusion in film.
Last year's festival opened under controversy after the inclusion in the lineup of French-Polish director Roman Polanski, who fled the United States after his 1977 conviction of rape of a 13-year-old girl.
There were also only two female directors in the selection. In both 2018 and 2017, only one female director was represented.   
Blanchett said more was riding on the jury's decisions this year, given the limited opportunities for filmmakers to show their work publicly, due to the coronavirus closures.
“So, whatever the deliberations the jury will make will be more impactful. I don't take that responsibility or privilege lightly.”