Film review: 'Tea With Mussolini'

Film review: 'Tea With Mussolini'
An autobiographical film in which his fictional counterpart is absent for long periods, Franco Zeffirelli's "Tea with Mussolini" stirs up one's sympathy for ladies in distress -- not too difficult a task for the movies -- but the episodic, ensemble drama, set in Florence before and during World War II, is more a jolly good time than a satisfyingly told story.

The MGM release does have a shot at popularity with mature and female audiences, who will be drawn to the awesome cast, including Cher, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Lily Tomlin. If nothing else, the little war between the Brits and the Americans provides a good hour of entertainment, with numerous skirmishes around cultural differences and personal conflicts.

Motherless and cast off by his father, illegitimate Luca (Charlie Lucas) is tutored and raised by Mary Wallace (Plowright), one of a group of expatriate British ladies happily, and somewhat obliviously, settled in pre-war Florence. On track to becoming an English gentleman, Luca, the Zeffirelli character, is a good lad with an artistic side. He's in good company with Lady Hester (Smith), widow of the former ambassador, art lover Arabella (Dench) and former Ziegfeld dancer Elsa (Cher), now an art collector and off-and-on resident.

The rise of fascism in Italy is dismissed by Lady Hester, who is loyal to Mussolini (Claudio Spadaro). But as war between Italy and Britain becomes a possibility, as anti-Semitic and anti-English attitudes disrupt the status quo, she leads a small party to Rome, meets with Il Duce himself, and gets personal assurance of their safety.

Nonetheless, with the entry of Italy in the war, the steadfast women are shipped off to the small, many-towered town of San Gimignano, while Luca is sent to Austria for German schooling . At first miserable, Lady Hester and the others are moved to a more comfortable hotel, and believe that Mussolini has not forgotten them. But in fact it's Elsa who secretly foots the bill, though she must still endure anti-American jibes from Lady H.

The years go by and the war rages, but the "prisoners" don't suffer much. Luca (Baird Wallace) returns to develop a big crush on the Jewish Elsa, whose escape unites all parties. From sandbagging historic frescoes -- the expats love Italy more than the natives -- to the dramatic end of the war when parts of the town are targeted for demolition by retreating soldiers, priority is placed on preserving civilization and culture, giving all the thespian talent plenty of opportunities to probe the emotional depths of the fairly uncomplicated characters.

Rounding out the group is Tomlin, in one of her better roles as an enthusiastically lesbian American. Smith is dominating, but her ideologically cancerous character's mild comeuppance is not much of a payoff. Dench and Plowright are likewise memorable in isolated sequences. Cher has the youthful energy, good looks and comedy background to pull off her breezy part and not let her classy vintage wardrobe grab all of one's attention.

Oscar-winning cinematographer David Watkin ("Out of Africa") goes for a creamy, safe, nostalgic visual scheme and succeeds all too well. The locations are enchanting and the evocative score's a treat.


MGM Distribution

G2 Films presents

Medusa Film, Catileya, Cineritmo

Film and General Productions

Director:Franco Zeffirelli

Screenwriters:John Mortimer, Franco Zeffirelli

Producers:Riccardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni, Clive Parsons

Executive producer:Marco Chimenz

Director of photography:David Watkin

Art directors:Carlo Centolavigna, Gioia Fiorella Mariani

Editor:Tario Anwar

Costume designers:Jenny Beavan, Anna Anni, Alberto Spiazzi

Music:Alessio Vlad, Stefano Arnaldi




Hester:Maggie Smith

Mary Wallace:Joan Plowright

Arabella Delancey:Judi Dench

Luca, Age 7:Charlie Lucas

Luca, Age 17:Baird Wallace

Georgie:Lily Tomlin

Mussolini:Claudio Spadaro

Running time --116 minutes

MPAA rating: PG

See also

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