Film & TV

Franco Zeffirelli: Unlikely Conservative Hero

Franco Zeffirelli in 2004 (Tony Gentile/Reuters)
The late Italian director had charisma and spirit, unlike art-movie nihilist Carlos Reygadas.

News of Franco Zeffirelli’s death prompted an ugly politicized attack by media hacks, eager to condemn the late Italian director’s conservatism. Between 1994 and 2001, Zeffirelli, a Catholic, served two terms in Italy’s parliament as a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. Pundits’ scorn for Zeffirelli’s politics outdid their disdain for his charismatic movies, which combined classical art and personal sexuality with traditional spirituality. (I will consider how those interests lead to different results in Carlos Reygadas’s Our Time, below.)

During the youthquake of the Sixties, Zeffirelli broke through to international popularity with his 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet in which he dared to cast actual teenagers, comely Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Fuddy-duddies frowned while audiences and box offices swooned. But some Millennial pundits ignored that landmark, eager to highlight allegations of impropriety and subject Zeffirelli’s legacy to the routine vilification of the #MeToo era.

One well-connected media hack tweeted “sexual assault” allegations and intemperate “abortion” comments as a double smear against Zeffirelli and his personal politics — even tweeting that the director was “a nightmare human.” While this was just another reprehensible assertion by “enemies of the people” who are prominent in mainstream media, the sneaky politics of the attack do a disservice to Zeffirelli’s complex cultural history — and to our own.

Zeffirelli may not appear to be a conservative’s ideal, but his film oeuvre signifies the social engagement, and a preserve of spiritual values, that conservatives have lost during the culture wars of the past several decades.

Starting with The Taming of the Shrew (1967), with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, one could dismiss Zeffirelli’s Shakespeare updates as examples of boisterous, jet-set fluff. But the classically trained Zeffirelli was one of those conservatives fully able to converse with the public on terms analogous to new Vatican rulings — he looked at tradition and convention with modern sincerity, and added Liz & Dick’s movie-star glamour.

This was the gift of Zeffirelli’s pop art, which peaked with Romeo and Juliet and then redefined itself with his surprisingly devout 1973 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, in which he appropriated a biography of St. Francis of Assisi as an allegory for the post-hippie Jesus-freak movement. The film plays out a rejection of bourgeois values through a new pair of comely performers, Graham Faulkner as Francis and Judi Bowker as St. Clare, both embodying hippie camaraderie at a precise stage of Christian benevolence — the era’s ingenuous sanctification of long-haired poverty-chic, replete with infectious songs by pop star Donovan.

Descending from the Italian cinema’s cultural aesthetic (and working with superb cinematographers), Zeffirelli’s greeting-card pictorialism is, nonetheless, committed to showing Franciscan holiness: the purity of sacrifice and the difficult-to-comprehend individuality that sets one apart. Plus, fraternal camaraderie, which Zeffirelli inevitably finds trenchant as well as erotic, as did his Renaissance forbears.

Though not an artist of sociological and psychological depth like his mentor and ex-lover Luchino Visconti, Zeffirelli luckily conveyed Catholic ethics in Italian-British pop hybrids: Check out his 1986 Otello with Placido Domingo and his 1990 Hamlet starring Mel Gibson. And a remarkable pair of semi-autobiographical melodramas — Tea with Mussolini and Forever Callas — revealed the complexity of his personal, political, and spiritual ethics, embodied by performers who were also erotic ideals. Those beliefs are key to understanding Zeffirelli’s objection to being called “gay.” He deemed that label “inelegant,” preferring the conventional, conservative term “homosexual.” Zeffirelli’s compassionate art opposes politician Pete Buttigieg’s pandering.

Instead of attacking others for their lack of faith, Zeffirelli cited his fondness for Pope Paul VI. In 2007, while reminiscing about his 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, he noted that the pope had given him special dispensation to direct the series. “With his discreet network of influence,” Zeffirelli recalled, the pope had intervened and guaranteed his hiring, insisting that “it was Zeffirelli or no one.” As a youth at St. Mark’s Convent in Florence, Zeffirelli had met Cardinal Giovanni Montini (prior to his investiture as pope), who teased him, saying, “In a different era, they would have kept you from being buried in consecrated land, but now the Church has changed, so much so that we welcome you as an instrument for spreading good ideas and good hope.”

That’s the elegance that defined Zeffirelli’s aesthetics. These qualities can also be well understood in the phrase William F. Buckley Jr. used in 2005 in “The Vatican and Gay Problems,” when pondering the ethics of closeted seminarians. “For the seminarian who lies,” Buckley wrote, “the integrity of his sovereignty over his own affairs is at risk.” But the integrity of Zeffirelli’s taste, intelligence, and sexuality was never in question until now — when artistic sincerity is insufficient to satisfy the bloodthirst of media jackals who attempt to destroy any conservative ally.

***

That anti-Zeffirelli tweeter, with his personal and professional advantage, looks down his nose at Catholic practice yet aims to control our culture’s secular narrative. This coincides with Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas’s quasi-religious films, of which the latest, Our Time (Nuestro Tiempo), is aptly titled for this era of vengeful political opportunism.

Reygadas was first celebrated as a follower of spiritual, metaphysical filmmakers Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Roberto Rossellini — a Mexican Terence Malick. But Japón, Battle in Heaven, and Silent Night (Stellet Licht) were movies of such private self-involvement that their spiritual speculation — and explicit, if illicit, heterosexuality — attracted few American filmgoers. Reviewers who controlled film culture’s secular narrative praised Reygadas for agnosticism that verged on sacrilege. In the nearly three-hour Our Time, Reygadas has gone completely worldly — still aestheticizing nature and behavior, yet always bypassing the spiritual for the carnal.

Zeffirelli would glimpse desire and temptation in naked buttocks, but Reygadas himself acts out the role of Juan, an ultra-bourgeois, land-rich Mexican cattle rancher who is also an internationally celebrated poet. That’s right, privilege and pretense rolled into one self-aggrandizing figure in an epic that continuously shifts from spectacular vistas to a polyamorous love triangle involving the poet’s wife Esther (Natalia Lopez) and the horse trainer Phil (Phil Burgers). Juan’s hypocrisy, judging other people’s morality while justifying his own covetousness, demonstrates such self-indulgence that perhaps only the double-dealing Pete Buttigieg could praise it.

The film begins with diversion — a triangle involving Juan’s teenage son — and moves on to Juan’s voyeurism, encouraging Esther to fornication and exhibitionism. But the visual clarity Reygadas favors seems mostly a matter of technique. The widescreen landscapes are impressive — as when dissolving from a Diego Rivera mural to a plane flight over Mexico’s surreal rural and urban landscape, which provides the film’s most captivating sequence. His compositions combine minute nature close-ups with vast details — like Malick minus insight — which connects Reygadas to the superficial flashiness of his countryman Alfonso Cuarón. But he’s far behind the more expressive technique of Julián Hernández (Broken Sky), Sergio Tovar Velarde, (Four Moons)  and Alonso Ruizpalacios (Güeros), whose Mexican politics and poetics have not yet found favor with the trend-oriented mainstream film culture.

Our Time’s mix of sex and politics exposes what was always insufferable and elitist in the Reygadas temperament. Lacking Zeffirelli’s old-fashioned warmth, what devouts call charisma, Our Time epitomizes our era’s spiritual vacancy. After Zeffirelli, the last of the cultural originalists — an artistic conservative at heart — we’re left with high-tech art that feels counterfeit.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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