Director Franco Zeffirelli has passed in Rome at age 96. His films about great operatic passions and refined spiritual auras earned him…well, mostly praise for 35 years. From the Burton-Taylor Taming of the Shrew (’67) to Callas Forever (’02) A long illness finally brought things to a close. Hugs and condolences to friends, family, colleagues and fans.

Zeffirelli’s life was a fascinating study in strong currents and conflicts, especially when he got older. If it hadn’t been for the arch-conservative views and Catholic constipation, I could say something along the lines of “we should all enjoy lives as vast, industrious and passionate as his.”

Zeffirelli’s most highly regarded film was Romeo and Juliet (’68), which resulted in a Best Director Oscar nomination and for which I always had a special thing (Olivia Hussey‘s Juliet was smooth and sweet and earnest beyond measure). But by today’s standards it feels a tiny bit precious, perhaps a little too poised.

Honestly? I have slightly fonder memories these days of Baz Luhrman‘s Romeo + Juliet (’96). I’m also a bit more enamored of Renato Castellani’s 1954 version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which Laurence Harvey played Romeo.

Right now my favorite Zeffirelli is Jesus of Nazareth (’77) with Robert Powell, and then Romeo and Juliet followed by Mel Gibson‘s Hamlet (’90).

I met Zeffirelli when he visited Cannon publicity in ’87 or thereabouts. He may have been there to discuss the video release of Otello, the Placido Domingo-starring filmed opera, or perhaps some future project — memory fails. He struck me as a kindly, gentle, elegant man in all respects.

It was common knowledge that Zeffirelli was gay, but he was too right-wing conservative (he served two terms in the Italian senate as a member of Silvio Berlusconi‘s right-wing Forza Italia party) and staunchly Catholic to be open about it. He finally came out in ’96 at age 73.

Zeffirelli’s arch-Catholic conservatism led to a vicious attack upon Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. He called it a product of “that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world.”

Of course, Scorsese’s film didn’t attack anything — it delivered a deeply satisfying and even rhapsodic capturing of Yeshua’s burden and plight.

Zeffirelli’s Wiki page reports that director-actor Bruce Robinson “claimed to have been the target of unwanted sexual advances by Zeffirelli during the filming of Romeo and Juliet, in which Robinson played Benvolio. Robinson says that he based the lecherous character of Uncle Monty in the film Withnail and I on Zeffirelli.”