Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

The lengthy New York Times obituary for the Franco Zeffirelli features lots of material — as it should — about the legendary director’s off-stage and off-screen private life, which was colorful, to say the least. The headline proclaimed: “Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96.”

The word “bastard” plays a dramatic role in this story, since that social stigma loomed over Zeffirelli throughout his life. The word “homosexual” is in the mix, as well. The Times also noted that, in his political career, Zeffirelli was a “conservative” who fiercely opposed abortion. Then again, he also fought with the Communists opposing Mussolini’s Fascists and the German Nazis.

Zeffirelli lived a sprawling, complex life that, at times, was almost as dramatic as the designs for his opera productions.

But there was something else that, when describing his life, Zeffirelli always stressed — his faith. In fact, the word “Catholic” never shows up in the Times piece. Also, there is only a passing reference to one of the works that, via television, made him famous with mass audiences around the world — his popular 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s rather strange. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted, in a Religion Unplugged feature about Zeffirelli’s complex career and faith:

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

The Times piece covered so many bases. So why ignore this man’s faith — which he openly discussed — as well as his complex personal life? Here is one large chunk of the obit:

A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.

Twice elected to the Italian Parliament, Mr. Zeffirelli was an ultraconservative senator, particularly on the issue of abortion. In a 1996 New Yorker article, he declared that he would “impose the death penalty on women who had abortions.” He said his extreme views on the subject were colored by the fact that he himself was born out of wedlock despite pressure brought to bear on his mother to terminate her pregnancy.

Franco Zeffirelli was born in Florence on Feb. 12, 1923, a product of an extramarital affair. His father, Ottorino Corsi, was a respected wool and silk merchant but inveterate womanizer, and his mother, Alaide Garosi, was a fashion designer who owned a dressmaking shop. Both were married to others at the time.

Later on, there is this poignant confession of the father-shaped hole in his life and psyche:

He knew his father only “in flashes,” he told The Times in 2009. “I remember this gentleman came, especially at night,” he said. “I woke up and saw this shadowy man naked in bed with my mother.” …

Several years ago, Mr. Zeffirelli adopted two adult sons — Giuseppe (known as Pippo) and Luciano — men he had known and worked with for years. They helped manage his affairs, and survive him.

“I missed my father when I was a child, I craved becoming a father myself,” he told The Times. … “But the facts of life prevented me from doing it.”

There’s more to the story than that, of course. But to explore that all of those complex and often clashing details, reporters would have needed to dig into Zeffirelli’s relationship to the Catholic Church and even to the Vatican, itself.

In his commentary — “Director Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith inspired his best work” — Lisi noted:

The death of Franco Zeffirelli on Saturday at the age of 96 marked the end of a movie-making era. The famed and prolific Italian director was known for lots of things — his joy of living, extravagant lifestyle and love for the opera and William Shakespeare.

What he will also be remembered for is his deep Roman Catholic faith. He was also a man truly blessed by God. The world may have never have come to know his art had he not escaped death twice during his life. …

Zeffirelli poured his soul into his movies, particularly the religious-themed ones he produced during the 1970s. His most famous was Jesus of Nazareth, a 1977 television mini-series shown around the world. To this day, actor Robert Powell is the image of what Jesus should look like in the minds of many believers.

There are several other interesting, I would think crucial, facts about Zeffirelli that appeared elsewhere in the press, but not in the newspaper-of-record obit at the Times.

Lisi rounded some of that up, including another painful — and controversial — detail linked to the director’s private life:

The Associated Press, in their obituary, noted Zeffirelli was “one of the few Italian directors close to the Vatican, and the church turned to Zeffirelli’s theatrical touch for live telecasts of the 1978 papal installation and the 1983 Holy Year opening ceremonies in St. Peter’s Basilica.” …

Zeffirelli was also gay, but didn’t speak much about t publicly until he was in his 70s. In his 2006 autobiography, Zeffirelli wrote that he considered himself “homosexual” — arguing the term “gay” was crude. As a child attending Catholic school, Zeffirelli claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a priest, who later begged for his forgiveness.

There’s lots to talk and write about, in this case. Truly the stuff of drama, high and low.

But here is the journalism point, as always: How does one tell the story of this man’s life without discussing his own words about the importance of his Catholic faith?

What is the journalistic logic for leaving that detail out of this complex picture?

FIRST IMAGE: Publicity photo on the set of “Jesus of Nazareth.”

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