Franco Zeffirelli’s Complicated, Catholic Life: What Does It Mean for His Art?

ON FILM: The contradiction between director’s faith and the themes of his religious films on the one hand and his openly homosexual lifestyle on the other raise perennial questions about the mysterious relationship of art and the artist.

Italian director Franco Zeffirelli pauses during the rehearsal of La Traviata at the Paris Opera Jan. 19, 1986.
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli pauses during the rehearsal of La Traviata at the Paris Opera Jan. 19, 1986. (photo: Jean-Loup Gautreau/AFP/Getty Images)

Clerical sexual abuse of minors; sexual harassment and assault in the film industry; Catholic traditionalist and modernizing impulses; homosexuality and the definition of marriage; populism vs. elitism; strict anti-abortion laws: Somehow the life of Franco Zeffirelli, who died June 15 at age 96, touched on all these flashpoints of contemporary dialogue and debate — and more besides.

For Catholics and other Christians, the contradiction between Zeffirelli’s faith and the themes of his religious films on the one hand and his openly homosexual lifestyle on the other raise perennial questions about the mysterious relationship of art and the artist.

Like many celebrities with professional longevity, Zeffirelli’s assets included a talent for reinventing himself in various arenas: theater, opera, cinema and politics.

Many remember him best for his Shakespeare adaptations, especially his breakthrough 1968 Romeo and Juliet starring Olivia Hussey — which introduced generations of high-schoolers to the Bard and made countless English teachers uncomfortable with its brief nudity — and his 1990 Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.

In the Catholic world, Zeffirelli is best known for his sprawling 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, a fixture of Easter season broadcasts for decades, as well as his less successful 1972 film about St. Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

His greatest success was in the opera world. Many Americans think of opera as inaccessible and elitist, but Zeffirelli was a populist who believed that enduring art is enjoyable and accessible. The lavish, grandiose visual style and romantic classicist sensibility he brought to long-running productions of La Traviata and La Bohème were aimed at pleasing the masses, not the critics.

“It’s like somebody decides that the Sistine Chapel is out of fashion,” he once remarked about avant-garde critical tastes. “They go there and make something à la Warhol. You don’t like it? Okay, fine, but let’s have it for future generations.”

He brought the same populist sensibility to Shakespeare, above all in his breakout success Romeo and Juliet, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of 1968 by casting teenagers in the lead roles and playing up the generation-gap theme. The film became a global sensation and the highest-grossing Shakespeare adaptation at that time.

The following year Zeffirelli was hospitalized after being seriously injured in a car wreck. Crediting God with his survival, he developed a renewed commitment to his Catholic faith and vowed to dedicate his work to God.

With his first effort, though, he found that the youth-culture approach that had worked so well in Romeo and Juliet didn’t translate to St. Francis of Assisi in Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

The cultural moment had passed, and in 1972 the film’s aimless, wide-eyed celebration of love of nature and simplicity, scored to the flower-child crooning of the Scottish folk musician Donovan, didn’t touch the nerve it might have a few years earlier.

This failure spurred Zeffirelli to take a completely different approach to his next religious project, Jesus of Nazareth.

According to Zeffirelli, the earliest roots of Jesus of Nazareth went back to his youthful involvement in Catholic Action as a university student in Florence. There he met Cardinal Giovanni Montini, then archbishop of Milan, the future Pope St. Paul VI, with whom Zeffirelli formed a lasting friendship.

The British producer Lew Grade, who was Jewish, credited Paul VI with suggesting that he produce a film about Jesus, and Zeffirelli credited the Pope with helping to land him in the director’s chair. Among the many religious scholars and advisers whom Zeffirelli consulted was Msgr. Pietro Rossano, the secretary of the papal Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions and one of the founders of the Italian Biblical Association.

When the miniseries made its debut during Holy Week 1977, Zeffirelli recalled, Paul VI endorsed the project in a Palm Sunday address, declaring, “Tonight you are going to see an example of the fine use which can be made of the new means of communication that God is offering man.”

Determined to avoid playing to the zeitgeist, Zeffirelli turned for inspiration to the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, which marked a turning point in the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people.

To a greater degree than prior productions, Jesus of Nazareth sought to emphasize Jesus’ Jewishness and his continuity with existing Jewish belief, culture and tradition and to offer a positive portrayal of first-century Judaism.

Some advance controversy notwithstanding, Jesus of Nazareth was embraced by Catholics and Protestants alike for its mostly reverent handling of the Gospel story, for Robert Powell’s intense portrayal of Jesus, and for Hussey’s iconic turn as the Virgin Mary. The first 100-odd minutes of Jesus of Nazareth remain the best screen telling of the story of the Nativity ever filmed and are annual Christmas viewing for my family.

Zeffirelli’s Vatican ties led to other projects. In 1970 he directed a production of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1997 the Vatican commissioned him to direct a documentary called Europe and John Paul II, marking the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and celebrating Europe’s Christian heritage.

After the media-savvy Pope St. John Paul II, Zeffirelli found Pope Benedict XVI a disappointment in the style department, though he praised his theology and “civilized and reasonable” disposition, and he offered to put himself “at the service of the Church” as an image consultant.

He was subsequently more impressed with Pope Francis’ public image, and, in 2016, he presented him with a coffee-table book dedicated both to the Pope and his eponymous patron saint, adorned with photographs from Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

Zeffirelli’s political career began in the 1980s with a failed bid for member of Parliament for Florence on behalf of the Christian Democratic Party. In his youth he had fought with communists in the partisan resistance to the Nazis, but his politics were generally conservative, and in the 1990s he won two elections to the Italian Senate, representing Catania, Sicily, in the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi.

Among his conservative positions, Zeffirelli was a staunch opponent of abortion, a stance in which he credited his mother’s decision not to abort him after the intervention of an aunt. He even went so far as to say that he would support the death penalty for women who procured abortions.

Although outspoken about his Catholic faith, Zeffirelli made no secret of the contradiction between his faith and his homosexual lifestyle.

“I believe totally in the teachings of the Church,” he wrote in his 1986 autobiography, “and this means admitting that my way of life is sinful.”

In keeping with Church teaching, Zeffirelli opposed the redefinition of marriage and did not identify with the gay-rights movement. He even disliked the word “gay,” a term he considered inelegant and lacking the classical resonance of “homosexual.”

The offspring of an adulterous relationship, Zeffirelli lost his mother at the age of 6 and said that he longed for the father he never knew.

He claimed to have been sexually molested as a boy by a priest who later begged him for forgiveness, but denied that he had been emotionally harmed by this. As a young man working in theater he met the stage and screen director Luchino Visconti, who took both a professional and a personal interest in the younger man.

Zeffirelli worked for Visconti as a set and costume designer, and later an assistant director, while living with him for years. Zeffirelli was deeply influenced by Visconti’s eclectic interest in opera, theater and cinema, along with his approach to in-depth research and attention to detail — habits that served him well for Jesus of Nazareth.

Zeffirelli’s personal interest as a director in his own male actors led to multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault. The English director Bruce Robinson, best known for the 1987 cult film Withnail and I, has claimed that that film’s lecherous character Uncle Monty was based on his experiences with Zeffirelli as a young actor on the set of Romeo and Juliet.

More recently, the actor Johnathon Schaech alleged that he was sexually harassed and assaulted by Zeffirelli on the set of the 1993 film The Sparrow. The allegation was disputed by Zeffirelli’s adopted son Giuseppe.

Thorny questions around the relationship of art to the artist’s life have dogged cinema since the silent era, but they gained a new impetus in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Hopes that the fall of giants like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein represented a turning of the tide were countered by concern about overzealous “cancel culture,” which in turn appeared overblown as very few power players seemed in real danger of being “canceled.”

For Catholics, the relationship between art and the artist’s life, while not necessarily decisive, is also not irrelevant.

For example, the ethereal power of Fra Angelico’s sacred art is somehow inseparable from the artist’s personal sanctity and holy way of life.

Yet magnificent and important religious art has also been created by artists such as Caravaggio, Raphael and Mozart, whose lives were in various ways notably at odds with the sacred themes of their most exalted work. (Caravaggio was a brawler and a murderer, Raphael a confirmed ladies’ man and Mozart a Freemason.) The same could be said in the 20th century of the celebrated English Catholic novelists Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Artistic inspiration seems to be a gift that, in some cases, can flow through an unworthy artist, in a way almost analogous to sacramental grace working through an unworthy priest.

On the other hand, artists can also misuse their gifts, or allow their sins and failings to corrupt their art in various ways.

For example, artwork in some Christian churches across Europe bears the marks of the history of Christian anti-Semitism, from distorted, grotesque portrayals of Jewish characters to depictions of blood libel (Jews kidnapping and murdering Christian children for ritual purposes) and Judensau (images of Jews suckling from female pigs or feeding from their posteriors). This has of course been a concern in portrayals of Jesus life and passion, including Jesus movies.

The Divine Comedy is one of the most sublime literary achievements in human history, yet it may reasonably be felt that in literarily damning a real-world adversary, Filippo Argenti — not to mention two people, Fra Alberigo and Branca d’Oria, who were still alive when he wrote — Dante transgressed the bounds of charity.

Art can sometimes cross-examine or condemn the artist’s own sins and failings, as in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Or the artist can rationalize or vindicate his or her wrongdoing. For me, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is a disturbing but profound meditation on evil, guilt and unbelief, while the thematically similar Match Point comes across as a smug Bronx cheer in God’s face.

In this complicated landscape, where and how do we draw the lines? When is it okay to separate the artist’s life from the art, and when is it irresponsible or impossible to do so?

It’s a complicated question. In fact, it is not one question, but several.

First, is the actual content of the art itself praiseworthy, harmful or perhaps both? Does the work transcend whatever may be the faults or offenses of the artist or of his or her social context? Or is the work corrupted in a direct or formal way?

These are critical questions, and the task of trying to sort out these issues is the responsibility of every thoughtful viewer as well as every critic.

Second, does our consumption or support of art do good or harm in the world? By supporting art we like, do we reward artists and distributors for adding beauty to the world? Do we support artists who lead notoriously harmful or abusive lifestyles or otherwise contribute to ongoing harm in the world?

These are social questions, obviously more relevant with living artists than dead ones — though the social effects of even old art may still be relevant. (Should anti-Semitic art in medieval churches be removed? Should racist films like The Birth of a Nation be screened?)

Third, when does our knowledge of an artist’s faults or offenses interfere with our appreciation of ostensibly unobjectionable work? (I, for one, would find it impossible to go back and enjoy The Cosby Show, relying as it does on the star’s persona as “America’s Dad.”)

In the wise words of a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, “The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, has always taught authoritatively, and will always teach authoritatively, that the visual arts … are a gray area.”

These are questions thoughtful Christians and others of goodwill have long wrestled with. I wrestle with them and will continue to do so. I will also continue to watch the first 100-odd minutes of Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth every year at Christmas.

Steven D. Greydanus is a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and the Register’s film critic.