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Italy's 'genius' film director Franco Zeffirelli dies
In this file photo taken on December 02, 2006 Italian director Franco Zeffirelli gives a press conference at the Scala theater in Milan. Italian director Franco Zeffirelli died aged 96 in Rome on June 15, 2019. The director of movies and operas "died serenely after a long illness, which had worsened these last months," Italian media said, citing family members. PACO SERINELLI / AFP.

by Franck Iovene

ROME (AFP).- The world of cinema was in mourning Saturday after Italian film and opera legend Franco Zeffirelli, feted for his lavish productions, died at home in Rome aged 96.

The Oscar-nominated director of movies and operas "died serenely after a long illness, which had worsened these last months," Italian media said, citing family members.

"I never wanted this day to come. Franco Zeffirelli departed this morning. One of the greatest men in the world of culture. We join in the grief of his loved ones. Goodbye, dear Master, Florence will never forget you," tweeted Dario Nardella, mayor of the Tuscan city where Zeffirelli was born.

"Deep emotion over the death of the master Franco Zeffirelli," tweeted Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte after Zeffirelli died in the presence of adopted sons Pippo and Luciano along with a doctor and a priest.

Afflicted by pneumonia for some time, Zeffirelli received the last rites last week, media reports said.

He was, Conte said, "an Italian ambassador of cinema, of art, of beauty. A great film maker, scriptwriter, scenographer. A great man of culture."

Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli said Zeffirelli was "a genius of our time."

The Zeffirelli Foundation offered a simple and affectionate "Ciao Maestro" on its website home page while leading Italian operas from Milan to Venice also paid tribute.

A date and setting for the funeral has yet to be announced but he will be laid to rest in Florence's Sacred Doors Cemetery at the San Miniato al Monte basilica, one of Italy's most scenic churches.

A director, screenwriter, and producer, Zeffirelli has about 20 feature films to his name.

Internationally, he is best known for having directed the 1968 film version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

He also borrowed from Shakespeare for adaptations of "Hamlet" in 1992 with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, and "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1967 with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Over and above his film work, he directed more than 30 plays and operas.

Born the son of a merchant on February 12, 1923, Zeffirelli was unable to take the name of either of his parents, both of whom were married to other people.

His mother gave him the surname "Zeffiretti' which means "little breeze" but, the story goes, it was misspelt on his birth certificate.

A homosexual and Catholic, Zeffirelli opposed an increasingly liberal sexual climate and came out against recognition of gay couples.

'Most exciting' Shakespeare film
Zeffirelli also tried his hand at politics.

From 1994 to 2001 he was an MP in Italy's upper house for the centre-right Forza Italia party of tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, whom he defended amid escalating stories about the prime minister's sex antics.

But it is for his work as a film director that Zeffirelli will be best remembered.

Film critic Roger Ebert called his "Romeo and Juliet", starring a 15-year-old Olivia Hussey, "the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made".

His other big films include "Brother Sun, Sister Moon", based on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and, returning to Shakespeare as he did often, "The Taming of the Shrew", in 1968 starred the famously tempestuous Hollywood couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

On the small screen, Zeffirelli put an all-star cast together for the 1977 British-Italian television miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth", the cast of which reads like a who's-who of 1970s acting talent, including Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, Anthony Quinn, Anne Bancroft, Claudia Cardinale and Christopher Plummer.

Another great love was opera, with films such as "Callas Forever" (2002), "Pagliacci" (1981) and "La Bohème" (2008), often working in myriad roles, including opera director and production and costume designer.

"The word of culture, and of cinema weeps today at the death of the maestro Franco Zeffirelli, a genius of our times, I love his films," said Italian Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli.

Zeffirelli received an honorary knighthood from Britain in 2004 for his "valuable services to British performing arts".

© Agence France-Presse

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