by Roderick Conway Morris

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Franco Zefferelli
Maria Bettis (Maria) and Johnathon Schaech (Nino) in Zefferelli's Sparrow (1993)

Zeffirelli and the making of 'Sparrow'

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 31 December 1993


Just a few weeks away from his 71st birthday, the indefatigable director, theatrical designer and fiImmaker Franco Zeffirelli greeted me in his dressing room at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma looking unreasonably youthful and justifiably pleased with the noisily appreciative public reception of his recent production of 'Aida'.

Amid the chronic uncertainty, empty coffers, staff strikes and low morale that has brought other Italian opera houses to a standstill, Zeffirelli had managed to put on a dazzling show - employing for Verdi's ancient Egyptian epic romance astonishing, trompe l'oeil sets painted on canvas by Lila De Nobili for his Milan production of 30 years ago.

'By some miracle, thank God,' said Zeffirellii, 'they were still in store at La Scala. Our original idea was to paint them in the style current at the time when 'Aida' was written. Back then in the early '60s they were thought quite bizarre, but now that this kind of Orientalist, Gustave Moreau, fin-de-siecle style has come back into fashion.'

After a gap of three years, Zeffirelli is about to launch a new film, 'Sparrow', which opens in Italy at the end of January, and will be released on the international circuit in late spring. The film is based on 'Storia di una Capinera,' an early novella by Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), and was shot in and around Catania, Verga's hometpwn.

'Sparrow' is the tale of a young girl in mid-19th-century Catania whose mother has died and whose father has remarried. At the age of 7, Maria, played by young American actress Angela Marie Betts, has been packed off to a convent by her stepmother, eventually to become a nun. But when she is 19 a cholera epidemic breaks out.

'Death in Catania,' Zeffirelli said, 'means life for her. The governrnent order is to open up all the colleges and convents and send people away into the countryside because they are dying like flies. And this is how, that summer, the girl is given the opportunity to know what life is about, to see trees, rivers, animals, flowers, all the things she has never seen.'

Maria meets a handsome young boy studying to be a lawyer, who has also been sent out of the city. The girl's stepsister and stepmother have their eye on him - but he falls in love with the nun-to-be. 'He proposes that they run away . . . But she doesn't have the courage - indeed she thinks she is being tempted by Satan.'

At the end of the summer the epidemic subsides and they all go back to Catania. The boy marries the stepsister, and Maria returns to the convent to become a nun. Meanwhile, however, she becomes so obsessed with what she has lost that she is brought to the edge of madness. And, in fact, there is already in the convent an old nun (played by Vanessa Redgrave), who has gone mad and is hidden away in a cell in the basement.

'It becomes clear that she, too, has had a similar experience - though the woman can no longer communicate, remembering only a time of too much love, too much light, nothing precise.'

At the end of Verga's novella, Maria dies in despair, of consumption. While otherwise keeping close to the original, Zeffirelli offers an alternative conclusion: 'From the time she goes back to the convent, Maria is dead to the world, but not physically. Before this she has found out that she is the only woman that the boy will ever truly love. In the end, he is the defeated one, and she the winner.'

'We know that when we pick up Verga, we are doomed,' Zeffirelli said. 'He was attracted by unhappiness and tragedy, and his endings are always unhappy. But my message is that love, whether it is consummated or not, lights up our lives. This message is very tough, but very comforting for those who could not make the dreams of their lives come true.'

Although 'Sparrow' is a quintessentially Sicilian and Italian story, most of Zeffirelli's actors are, as usual, English and American (many of them, as often in his films, unknown newcomers).

With nearly 30 opera productions, a score of plays and 10 films to his credit, Zeffirelli betrays no signs of slowing down. Now that post-production of 'Sparrow' is nearly completed, he plans to direct a stage show in the new year. 'After a film I like to go back to the theater. Then I'll do another film. I like to switch. The only way to rest, for me, is to get fatigued differently. To get tired differently, in a way, relaxes me.'

Sparrow: The Story of a Song Bird by Verga, translated by Christine Donougher, with an introduction by Roderick Conway Morris, Dedalus European Classics (1994)

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023