Silvio Berlusconi, the clownish and disgraced former Prime Minister of Italy who was sentenced to prison for tax fraud, has found at least one very prominent countryman on his side. Renowned filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, now 90 years old, has supported Berlusconi's claims that the ex-Prime Minister has been targeted and victimized by a “conspiracy” perpetrated by left-wing [read:”Communist”] judges and media.
Zeffirelli is perhaps best known to English-speaking audiences for his 1960s film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and "Romeo and Juliet." He even appeared at a rally in Rome recently with the beleaguered Berlusconi to protest his conviction. “I cried when he started to cry," Zeffirelli told Italian media. "We embraced each other, both emotional. Silvio is right. We continue to live under an incorrigible left-wing dictatorship. He has to stay, without a shadow of a doubt. It’ll be terrible if we lose Silvio. He’s the last hope. The final guardian of true liberty.”
Zeffirelli, who has enjoyed a long and lucrative career in both film and opera, has had an extensive relationship with the billionaire media mogul. It might even surprise some to know that Zeffirelli served two terms as a senator as a member of Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia party. "He [Berlusconi] is the victim of a flotilla of hypocrites masquerading as Democrats and rascals," Zeffirelli told the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. However, Zeffirelli also tempered his enthusiasm for Berlusconi by acknowledging some of the former Prime Minister's well known indiscretions. "He [Berlusconi] has done some stupid personal things, it's true," the nonagenarian said. "But who [has] not? But the real purpose of all this [litigation] is [to] drive him from the political scene."
Overall, Zeffirelli thinks rather highly of the convicted tax fraud and serial womanizer. "[Berlusconi is] a great statesman," he gushed. “Thanks to him, I do not forget, I was senator for two terms."
However, in some ways, the film auteur and opera designer is a somewhat surprising source of support for Berlusconi. In 2010, when Berlusconi was in power, Zeffirelli condemned his government for failing to properly subsidize the arts, particularly opera, where he first made his mark. In a broader context, Italy’s post-war film culture has generally been hostile to right-wing politicians like Berlusconi. Zeffirelli is one of the few remnants of Italy's glorious cinematic past, having worked with giants like Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and others. But he is quite different from his illustrious peers. Indeed, The Guardian once described Zeffirelli as "a singularly unorthodox conservative."
Although Zeffirelli is gay (he didn't 'come out' until he was in his mid-70s), he remains a staunch defender of the Roman Catholic Church, even with respect to the Vatican's condemnation of homosexuality. In an interview with Father Mario Conte, international editor of the Messenger of St Anthony magazine, Zeffirelli expressed his adamant opposition to abortion. Reflecting on his own illegitimate birth, the director discussed a man he knew during his youth in Florence, Giorgio La Pira, the future mayor of the city. "He [La Pira] told me that I had been born thanks to my mother's courage," Zeffirelli said. He [La Pira] went on, and I will never forget this, that a woman is never a sinner if she gives birth. So you can see why I am anti-abortion, why I believe in life, the life of every living thing, in every situation and at whatever cost."
In that same interview, Zeffirelli discussed his devotion to God. "I know He exists, and I have no difficulty in saying so," he stated. "What really fascinates me most about God is how He planned our paths," adding that while he respects all religions, "I believe that Catholicism is the only one that comprehensively meets the needs of mankind. No other religion has words so full of hope as those Jesus preached in the 'Sermon on the Mount'." Moreover, in his autobiography, Zeffirelli admitted he was introduced to homosexuality by a pedophile Catholic priest, but he shrugged off any criminal intent by the cleric. "Molestation suggests violence and there was no violence at all," he told the Guardian.
In a 1999 interview that appeared in Pitch Weekly, Zeffirelli expressed his distaste towards both Fascism and Communism. "I've always been anti-fascist even when I was young," he said. "I fought with the [British] army during the Italian campaign [during World War II]. After that I remained strongly anti-Communist, because during the partisan times, I saw what the Communists were capable of doing."
Zeffirelli's political views would appear to stand far apart from many of his predecessors in Italian cinema. Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci adhered to Marxism; while Rossellini was largely apolitical and Fellini was rather ambiguous politically (although he always described himself as a Catholic). De Sica embraced left-wing ideology, though not as stridently as his notable screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, a devout Communist. Zeffirelli would likely be the only film auteur from this exalted group to embrace a man like Berlusconi.