God & I: Franco Zeffirelli

May 09 2003 | by

COULD YOU give us a definition of yourself? Who is Franco Zeffirelli?

We spend our whole lives searching for our own identity without realising that, in reality, this identity, this uniqueness, is something we are born with. What we bring into the world humbly and unworthily is a spark of the Divine. I am really convinced of this.

On earth each of us follows our own path, and this is the fundamental reason for our being born, so that we may witness God's love, refine our creative capacities and do good and overcome evil in this battlefield which is life. The forces of evil are always on the attack, desperately trying to turn us away from these vocations.

I could say that my identity at the moment is one of a man trying to take care of his neighbour: I have tried to do this ever since I was born, but indirectly through my work expressing that particle of the Divine which God has given me. I have tried to pass on to my neighbour - my public, my students and those who have worked with me - an ideal of culture and goodness, and yes, anger at certain aspects of the political and administrative structures which have always offended me. I have always felt the urge to make public all the things I believe are unjust, and at times in a sensational way. Now, I am concentrating on a more direct line through politics and social work.

I know that you had a difficult childhood. Could you tell us something about it?

I am an illegitimate child. My mother was a very famous seamstress in Florence, a designer of her times, and her studio in the centre of the city was frequented by many aristocrats. This woman, who could no longer be considered young - she was 42 - and who was married with grown-up children, fell madly in love with a man who was also married.

Of course, their relationship was at the centre of local Florentine gossip, and it threatened to ruin her socially and economically. Moreover, her husband, who was very old and sick, died during her pregnancy leaving her prey to a society which at the beginning of the twenties was rather rigid and which decided to make her pay dearly for what she had done.

Relatives and friends were horrified and very worried for the future which lay ahead of her. Some advised her to have an abortion, but she refused. She believed that the child which was about to be born was a monument to her great love. She was determined to give birth at whatever cost. In a certain way, my birth was her damnation. Over a period of five to six years, her clientele abandoned her and she was ruined economically. Then there was the crisis of 1929.

My father, after a few years of being deeply in love, grew tired of her and left. She died when I was only six years old. Fortunately, however, an aunt began to take care of me, and she became my mother. Children always find someone who is willing to offer them a little love; it is the old who are unable to find love in our society.

What role did your father play in your life?

He was only present from an economic point of view. He didn't even want to recognise me as his son.

My surname, Zeffirelli, is a mispronunciation of the name my mother gave on my birth certificate: Zeffiretti. My mother loved music, and in particular Mozart's Zeffiretti's Aria. I can still remember her playing zeffiretti lusinghieri and farfalle e zeffiretti on the piano.

My father only recognised me as his son when his wife, Corinna, a particularly evil woman, died. By then I was 19 and beginning to make a name for myself, so it didn't even occur to me to change my surname for my father's.

You say Corinna was an evil woman. In what way?

She felt my mother was a rival, even after my mother's death. In particular, she hated me because she had been unable to give her husband a son. She used to wait outside my school, and when I came out she used to whisper behind my back: 'You bastard, you little bastard, one day you will realise.' I got so tired of her persecution that I told my aunt what she was doing. That evening, for the first time, she left me alone and went out. She came back a couple of hours later, and the only thing she said to me was: 'If she does it again, I will kill her.' And to think my aunt was such a good person.

You have always stated you are against abortion...

Yes, always, and I'll explain to you why. In the afternoon, after school, I used to go with my friends to a recreational area run by Dominican friars in St. Mark's Square in Florence. We often played football in one of the monastery's large cloisters. One day, a fight broke out among us, and one of the boys chased me away using a particularly vivid expression insulting my mother's memory. My first reaction was to stop in my tracks petrified, then I began to cry. At a certain point, a man arrived, took hold of my hand and asked me to follow him. He led me to a painting - the Annunication by Fra Angelico - and explained to me that the Annunciation was more important than Christmas because in that moment God became man. Then he told me that I had been born thanks to my mother's courage. He went on, and I will never forget this, that a woman is never a sinner if she gives birth. That man was Giorgio La Pira, and shortly after he became Mayor of Florence. So you can see why I am anti-abortion, why I believe in life, the life of every living thing, in every situation and at whatever cost.

What kind of relationship do you have with God?

I know He exists, and I have no difficulty in saying so. What really fascinates me most about God is how He planned our paths. There are certain developments in our personal lives that meet and are interwoven in a way that they do not happen by chance.

One morning I went to the newsagent and saw a man whom I recognised: 'You are the famous actor...'

'Yes,' he replied and I told him: 'I also want to be an actor.'

'I am in town with my acting company. Why don't you come and see us in the theatre?'

I went to see him and that marked the beginning of my artistic career.

Each life is made up of many minor episodes which on the surface seem casual, but which in reality are determined by a well-thought-out plan. Shakespeare says the same thing about Hamlet: 'There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.' However, although our paths have already been set out, it must be clear that this does not take away our free will.

You have always said that you are a Catholic. What does this mean to you?

Personally, I respect all religions; however, I believe that Catholicism is the only one that comprehensively meets the needs of mankind. No other religion has words so full of hope as those Jesus preached in the 'Sermon on the Mount'. Not even the Jews do. Their God is severe: He dictates laws, carries out acts of revenge... It's not that our God is any less strict - just try to put into practise the 'Sermon on the Mount' - but He is also patient and knows how to wait, He recognises our limits and is 'satisfied' when He sees us walking towards Him, while knowing that we will never reach Him. Pascal said: 'Be comforted. You would not be seeking Me if you had not found Me.' The only man who has ever arrived near Jesus is Saint Francis.

You made a very beautiful film on the life of Christ: Jesus of Nazareth. Was it also an important experience from the point of view of your faith?

This film represents a very important turning point in my life because it gave me the opportunity to draw closer to the mystery of Christ. I was forced to study the Scriptures in depth and my Catholicism, which I had been taught as a child, underwent, you could say, a new initiation which went far below the surface of my childhood experience. I would in part compare that moment in my life with the political experience I am living now: they are two periods of my life when I have had to work hard to get to the heart of mankind's great problems: life, spirit, faith. During the filming of

Jesus of Nazareth, I felt the Lord was guiding us and the wind was always behind us. In fact, everyone involved in the film had the same sensation, and it was a particularly happy, airy and easy time in our lives. There was a kind of 'energy' given off around us.

Is there an episode in the making of that film that left behind its mark?

Definitely. It was the episode of the resurrection, a focal point of our faith, which I was unable to film. I didn't want to show the tomb with the doors thrown open, light shining, thunder... I had come up with another idea for the scene.

The apostles were hidden in the place where the Last Supper had taken place; they were confused and frightened, and it was Thomas who expressed these feelings they had in common. They could not agree among themselves and their faith was beginning to waver. They were still unable to understand the meaning of Christ's sacrifice: Jesus had wanted to die as if He were a common criminal to show them the strength of His love. Suddenly, Mary Magdalene appears on the scene and as if she were a mad woman she tells them about having found the tomb empty and her meeting with the gardener who she recognises as Jesus.

At that point, somebody knocks in the door, and all those present are terrified. A poor pilgrim, a beggar, appears on the doorstep and they let him come in. Only then do they realise, having seen His stigmata, that it is Jesus. I think personally this is a very beautiful scene.

We had reconstructed the scene in the garden of the hotel in Meknés in Morocco where we were staying, and having practiced it many times, we began to film the scene. Suddenly, we saw a dark blanket of clouds coming towards us on the horizon. In no time at all, the sky had turned black and a strong wind had come up: it was a sand storm. As the wind and the sand blew around us, we desperately tried to save the set but soon everything was covered in sand. It was impossible to film for the whole day.

The next morning, the weather was back to normal and we filmed some scenes in an olive grove near the hotel. Then, we decided to try to the scene of the resurrection. This time, a storm stopped us from filming. With one problem or another, it proved impossible to do that scene.

On my return to Italy, I spoke to Monsignor Romano, our religious expert, and he urged me to add the episode of the resurrection, saying that it was essential in a film on Christ. At that moment, the film ended with the scene of Sinedrita Zerah, a fictitious character, who having heard about the empty tomb exclaims: 'Now, everything is about to begin.' It was a wonderful finale with the excellent Ian Holm as Zerah, however, the film was obviously incomplete.

There was another extended meeting of the experts who all asked me to do something. I didn't really want to film that scene any more, because I felt inside me that Someone had not wanted me to.

In the final stages of editing, something happened which can only be described as miraculous. In all our preparations, we had filmed a rehearsal of a scene with all the apostles around Jesus. Christ was giving His last farewell to the apostles before the Passion. I had completely forgotten about filming that clip, but here it was at the right time. There was no sound, only the image, so we recorded the sound by using the few words Jesus said to His disciples: 'I will be with you until the end of time.' Now we had the finale we had longed for.

God had wanted it so. On the other hand, it is impossible to create the scene of the resurrection and so we had to be satisfied with its meaning: He is risen and is with us forever.

The figure of Saint Francis inspired another of your famous films: Brother Sun, Sister Moon. In your opinion, what aspect of Francis has been best understood by the Franciscans?

The Fransicans today do not even come close to the extraordinary figure of their founder. But then, almost immediately after his death, they moved away from his ideals of life. In fact, when Friar Leone, who was old and blind, came back to Assisi, he began to rail against Friar Elia and his followers who no longer lived as Francis has instructed them to. It was inevitable, however, that a certain organisation was going to take into consideration the material side of life. What strikes me as most important is that the Franciscans have known how to develop the idea of charity and love for one's neighbour.

Sacred subjects have often been used by the world of cinema. Do you think it has been used for purely business advantages or because it was a means of expressing a real faith?

I don't believe anybody has ever made money from religious films; I certainly didn't with Saint Francis. However, there was a public that used to go and see films on religious themes, but this public seems to have disappeared.

Did you know that most of the religious films were produced by the Jews? Even my Jesus of Nazareth! Despite the fact that the profits were limited - and so this was obviously not the reason why they had it made - these people knew how to keep their fathers' faith alive using the cinema.

I don't understand why, if the Jews have always managed to find the funds, we Catholics can't do the same to make a good religious film.

You have recently completed the film Callas Forever. How would you define this film? As a tribute to Maria Callas, a friend's recollection or something else?

There are several things which contribute to justifying in my life, to myself and my consciousness, the reasons why I dedicated two years' work to making this film. Firstly, in rembrance of a very dear friend, secondly out of recognition for all she has given us, thirdly, to keep the memory of this woman alive. However, I wanted, above all, to make the story of this excellent artist, this genius, well-known. At what cost did she reach those impervious peaks which are so difficult to achieve? At what cost to personal sacrifice and faith in oneself?

This is a message which I think is particularly useful for young people who believe that everything is easy and a 'free-for-all': the McDonald culture. Maria Callas is a typical and fundamental example of how much you must give in order to reach certain greatly-desired peaks. Young people do not find it easy to understand this. We must make them realise that there is an eternal law which cannot be reached without sacrifice, in human force, study, diligence and faith.

Updated on October 06 2016