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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
Published July 29, 1999