“For better or for worse he was Franco, a man outside the box who lived for art”

Florence. One hundred years of beauty, of memorable films, of shows that are legend, of bitter misunderstandings, of proud non-conformism. Tomorrow the exhibition that launches the celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Franco Zeffirelli (February 12, 1923) will be inaugurated at the Scala in Milan. With Pippo Zeffirelli, assistant to the master, then adopted son and finally president of the Foundation that guards his legacy in Florence, we retrace the glowing experience, both human and artistic, of an unrepeatable existence.

Franco Zeffirelli met her in 1968 and adopted her in 1999. How did you guys meet?

“While I was in the military in La Spezia, I saw Romeo and Juliet in the cinema. Then, when I went down to Rome to find my cousin, who was Bolognini’s assistant, they introduced him to me. Only later, however, when they said on TV that he had had a terrible car accident, did I understand that he was the director of Romeo and Juliet. I went to see him in the hospital: this thing struck him very much. He started a wonderful relationship, which opened my mind, gave me indelible experiences, and over time it became that between a father and a son ».

Zeffirelli’s long life, tumultuous and dazzling, resembles his beloved melodramas.

“Yes, from the very beginning. The result of an extramarital affair, Franco risks dying three times. When his mother refuses to abort him (which explains why he was so opposed to abortion); when as a partisan he is about to be shot by the fascists, and his father reveals to their boss at the last moment that the condemned man is, in reality, his brother (that fascist too was his illegitimate son); when in Gina Lollobrigida’s Rolls Royce he crashes into a rock, and vows to San Francesco to dedicate a film to him, if he is saved ».

The meeting with Visconti was central. He defined him as «A Jupiter, approaching him was like entering Olympus».

«A priceless school. But Visconti was also a complex man: A snake, Magnani called him; a boutique communist, for Tennessee Williams. After a theft in Luchino’s house, the police put Franco in jail, without Visconti defending him. The real thief is then discovered; but for Franco the wound will be deep. And then he was jealous, possessive: when they call Franco from the Old Vic to offer him – the first Italian in the history of Shakespeare’s temple – even three directories, Visconti takes him apart. You are crazy? You break your head !. This is exactly what makes Franco accept. And it will be the historic Romeo and Juliet with the debut of Judi Dench. It took an Italian to teach us how to make Shakespeare! Writes the king of critics Kenneth Tynam ».

Zeffirelli becomes Zeffirelli in England. Here, however, he is laughed at, insulted, ostracized. Because?

«First of all, because it is visceral anti-Communist. Catholic, moreover. Enough, in the red world of the Italian show. As a boy he asked his teacher Giorgio La Pira whether to join the partisans; the future holy mayor of Florence replied: Go, but remember: Nazis, fascists and communists are all the same. He was scandalized that on April 25 only the partisans were celebrated and never the Allies. It was they who freed us !. He was a healthy, vigorous maverick. And he was Florentine. Florentine, before being Italian, he said ».

Nonconformist even towards famous colleagues?

«He greatly admired Fellini. Di Pasolini had the courage to say what many think: a great poet but a bad director. Antonioni and Bergman? He found their works beautiful, but depressing: Even in the drama I would like a glimmer of hope. At the theater he greatly admired Strehler, while he hated Ronconi and his way of distorting acting. Even to Riccardo Muti he did not send them to say: Great director, but with such desires to be protagonists to choose mediocre collaborators, just to shine only himself ».

Even Zeffirelli lived homosexuality in the opposite way to the current mentality.

“He had accepted it in a, I would say, manly way. Without whining, without absurd claims. He found Gay Pride horrible, vulgar, a vulgar carnival that discredits all homosexuals, even those who, like him, reject exhibitionism, forcing. Then let’s not talk about gender ideology. Franco was very opposed to same-sex marriage, and above all to the adoption of children by two people of the same sex. He said: Every child has the sacrosanct right, dictated by nature to have a mother and a father ».

Not even the Italian critics loved him very much.

“One episode speaks volumes about it. To present Romeo and Juliet with Giannini and Guarnieri in Rome, he reserved the preview exclusively for young people, excluding critics. They tied it to their finger and deserted the show. That was a triumph. Then Franco published an advertisement in a newspaper. The success was such that we thank the critics for their lack of interest. He had courage, Franco ».

Sometimes, however, his verbal incontinence passed the sign, dragging him into scandals and controversies …

“Alas. In an interview in which he criticized a bad Scorsese movie, he passed for anti-Semitic. It was a misunderstanding but Hollywood never really forgave it. Then there were the endless quarrels with Juventus, against the massacre of horses at the Palio di Siena. The mayor of the city claimed: With the Palio we have saved many children from drugs !. Of course – he replied – because then you give the drug to the horses! Do you think that when Franco shot a special on Tuscany, the mayor did not give him permission to enter Siena. Then Franco took her from the helicopter! ».

Ostracized by intellectuals and critics, but the public was always all on his side.

“Ah, there is no doubt. From Romeo and Juliet, which won two Oscars becoming the hymn of children from all over the world, to Jesus of Nazareth, seen by a billion viewers and whom Paul VI praised from the window of St. Peter’s Square. The films-works of him, Traviata, Otello have made school. In the theater there are mythical titles. La Lupa that brought Magnani back to the stage; the Maria Stuarda in which Valentina Cortese pretended to faint to steal the scene from Rossella Falk (the two hated each other); on Saturday, Sunday and Monday when Joan Plowright cooked a real ragù on stage. And at the end of the show the English public, going crazy, crowded the nearby Italian restaurants ».

Also colossal are the unrealized projects, and the “big waste”.

«Think what Poppea’s coronation would have been that he would have wanted to do with Callas in Piazza del Campidoglio, in Rome! And then the Beatles: they had to write the songs and interpret the friars of Brother sun, sister moon! He also prepared a second film about St. Francis, The Three Brothers: The Poverello’s Meeting with the Sultan. In ’69 Albert R. Broccoli proposed 007 A cascade of diamonds. But Franco only shot what he loved. He also refused The Godfather: he liked Puzo’s book, but he had the mafia, he said, too American a vision. But he suggested to Paramount an actor auditioned for Brother Sun, Sister Moon and reluctantly failed: Al Pacino. ‘

You also met two absolute icons of your unrepeatable creative path: Callas and Magnani.

«Of Maria he said He is ignorant as a crow. She is not a woman of culture: she is a woman who makes culture. Magnani came every Saturday for dinner with us because Franco’s nanny made her malfatti with ricotta and spinach. But with a diktat: that there was only her. Got it, you ugly asshole ?. Because Anna spoke to him like this, to Franco. One evening Callas telephones us: Maria – Franco says to her – come to dinner: there are bad things !. Too late she realizes the mistake. The doorbell rings, Franco goes to open it. Maria … Magnani is there too …. Anna? My idol!. Magnani dissolves. Who to sit on Franco’s right? Maria, do you mind if I put Anna in there? You know: she is much, much older than you. Of course Franco: it’s obvious! ».

What was it like living next to such a unique person, and in such a golden world?

“Not always easy, but wonderful. I regret that Franco didn’t have his camera with him while he went nightclubs with Coco Chanel, or when he had lunch in Central Park with Marilyn Monroe, or took Robert Kennedy to dance at the Piper in Rome. Franco loved being a star. He always had many people around him, a consequence of the loneliness he suffered as an orphan, and beautiful people: maybe the same evening there were Fracci, Streisand, Sordi, Masina, Kessler … Once he fell into Marina Cicogna’s house at midnight. with Ava Gardner, Maggie Smith and Mia Farrow! The folly of Rudolf Nureyev is memorable, as he is his guest in Positano, he goes to swim at night and is mistakenly locked out of the house. In revenge he furiously smashes Franco’s tiles, and the two slap each other. Result: the morning after the scandal ends up in the New York Times ».

A fervent activism, an inexhaustible creativity. But the time has come for everyone to stop …

«Franco was a believer. He prayed a lot, every evening. Nevertheless, like everyone, he was afraid of death. One day when he couldn’t even write anymore (he blamed the pens: They don’t work!) Sitting in the garden he took my hand. Pippo dear, soon I will no longer be able to enjoy such beauty. But he also thought that each of us has always existed. And it will always exist. And isn’t this already, after all, an intuition of eternity?

“For better or for worse he was Franco, a man outside the box who lived for art”