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After putting it off for 30 years, Franco Zeffirelli finally films his formative years in Florence just before the war, when the Scorpioni, the English ladies who looked after him, had Tea With Mussolini. It is a good story, if sometimes painful, as he tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

Franco Zeffirelli felt "as if lightning had struck me," shooting one particular scene of his autobiographical film, Tea With Mussolini, "and the tears came as I saw a moment of my life come back to me," as he watched Joan Plowright teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to young bi-lingual actor Baird Wallace. "It was a bit like living your life a second time. And there were other moments like that….it’s quite painful yet tantalising, seeing myself at age of eight, despite having my wrinkles and double chin!"

"I couldn’t call him Franco - after all, it’s not a diary"

Plowright, playing the character of Mary Wallace, modelled on the real life Mary O’Neill, who had done for young Zeffirelli what Plowright was now doing for the young Wallace character, Luca. Luca, one of Zeffirelli’s favourite Florentine names, is the boy representing the director "but I couldn’t call him Franco…after all, it’s not a diary but an invention based on real events, a blend of reality, memory and (co-writer) John Mortimer’s imagination."

Giving the boy a different name made it no easier to find the right actor for the character.

"I’ve been through this casting problem before, with Romeo and Juliet," he says. "I was looking for an 8 and a 15 year old Luca. We searched the whole world for two suitable actors. Charlie Lucas, who plays Luca as a child, is English and is very convincing. Casting the older Luca was difficult because we needed a bilingual boy in his mid teens. We found Baird Wallace nestled in the American Embassy in Rome. Baird looks very like me as a young boy and I took to him immediately."

Tea With Mussolini is a tongue in cheek reference to an incident that is pivotal to this chapter in Zeffirelli’s life as a young boy in Florence during the war. Thrust by circumstances into the bosom of a group of English expatriate women – matrons of considerable poise and standing – the young boy’s view of the world was coloured by them.

"I also wanted to show how historical events change people’s lives. It’s certainly changed mine."

When he grew up, Zeffirelli was always toying with the idea of making a film of this era. "I felt I had to tell this story – not just about myself but about these extraordinary women who tried to resist the madness of war that was sweeping across Europe. They simply didn’t see why Italy and England could not still be friends. Just because a bunch of idiots had decided to go to war."

But as well as his personal agenda, Zeffirelli felt the bigger picture of Italy’s involvement needed a good airing. "I hope the film will help educate Italians who prefer not to think about the past. Italians do not know enough about their history. At the time many Italians were drugged under the charm of Mussolini; they just accepted the circumstances, mouths open wide and hanging on his every word without understanding what was really going on. I also wanted to show how historical events change people’s lives. It’s certainly changed mine."

Writer Mortimer, who co-wrote the screenplay based on Zeffirelli’s memories (as recorded in his autobiography) added what Zeffirelli regards as a necessary element. "Autobiographical works are never completely successful," he says. "You need a writer to dramatise and fashion the material. I was lucky to have John Mortimer."

"He is terribly enthusiastic and gets carried away" Judi Dench

But it was not all sad and painful on the set. The first day that Cher was shooting the cast and crew agreed to skip their usual one hour lunch break so they could finish early for the day to watch the Italy v France quarter final World Cup soccer match. And there were moments of sheer farce as Zeffirelli acted out the roles of each of the women from one scene to the next, "and a lot better," quips Judi Dench, who had experienced the same thing with Zeffirelli in the 1960 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in London. "He is terribly enthusiastic," says Dench, "and gets carried away which is very attractive. He tells you how to play the role – that’s also very nice."

Speaking from Los Angeles, where he is enjoying the film’s US popularity (US$12.2 million in 66 days) and also putting together another film project ("and I’m not telling you anything about that, because I’m superstitious…"), Zeffirelli talks softly but fluently, with a gentle Florentine accent. We talk about his love of Italy and his belief that it will soon rise above its political instability and fly high as a cultural power. Twice elected to the Senate a few years ago, Zeffirelli is a staunch supporter of Sicily and Sicilians, who, he says, are a wonderful people badly done by in the eyes of the world with the Mafia label.

"He had a smile I’m sure women couldn’t resist..."

We also talk about his early life in Florence, and his mother and father; the former died of a tumour when he was six, the latter remained "behind a filter" all his life. "My father was a handsome womaniser and ruined many women’s lives and broke many hearts…" His mother, Adelaide, one of them. Baby Zeffirelli was born out of wedlock – well, out of the right wedlock. Both his mother and father were already married, and the affair caused a great scandal in Florence. But Adelaide refused to abort the baby, and Franco was brought up under the influence of his Anglophile father. "He insisted that I have private English lessons three times a week – one of the truly beneficial things he did for me."

As a young boy Zeffirelli was always curious to know who his father was. "I began to fantasise about him. Now I’ll always remember him as he was in his late forties, after the war. He always dressed meticulously in grey with a carnation or gardenia in his buttonhole. He always wore a white handkerchief in his waistocat pocket which smelled of eau de cologne. His face was well shaven and his moustache was carefully trimmed. He had a smile I’m sure women couldn’t resist. But for all the charm I could never call him father in public."

"I remember her desperate kiss and embrace…"

While Zeffirelli steps behind a false name, his own is equally accidental. "I was registered as the son of NN. . . being an illegitimate son I could not take my father’s name. Illegitimate children were allocated a letter in alphabetical order. When my turn came along, I was allocated Z. Since my mother loved Mozart’s aria degli Zeffiretti from Cosi van Tutte, she named me Zeffiretti, but the clerk wrote Zeffirelli, forgetting to cross the ts – hence my name. Probably the only one in the world."

Never really close to his father, Zeffirelli feels they always saw each other through that peculiar filter, "a fence between us – we couldn’t express affection for each other even at the end."

With his mother, however, Zeffirelli remembers "great moments of affection and joy as well as clouds of worry and unhappiness. The last time I saw her was in hospital, and I didn’t know she was going…but I remember her desperate kiss and embrace…"

"I was hoping to have an objective view..."

In the film, Luca, the Zeffirelli figure, is almost like an observer of his own life, a result perhaps of Zeffirelli’s ambivalence towards the telling of his own story, one so fraught with emotional traps and much pain. "I am very confused about the whole issue," he says. "That’s why I kept putting it off for 30 years. I was attracted by the elements of the story, by the wonderful characters I remember and beautiful Florence before the war (the crew cleaned up a whole street for the shoot, much to the delight of Florentines) but unsure of what angle to take, how to tell the story. I was hoping to have an objective view…now that I’m well advanced in maturity," he says laughing at his age (77 in February 2000), " I thought I could try."

Published July 29, 1999

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