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Tea with Mussolini

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 14 May 1999

  Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Staring Cher, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith,
Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin, Charlie Lucas
and Baird Wallace.

Screenplay by John Mortimer and Zeffirelli,
based on the book "Zeffirelli: An Autobiography".

Franco Zeffirelli's "Tea With Mussolini" is based on a portion -- a fragment, actually -- of his 1986 memoir, in which he describes the British ladies who lived in Florence while he was growing-up in the 1930s. Known among the locals as the "scorpioni", these high-handed, parasol-wielding women would brazenly mock and ridicule the working-class Italians while becoming infatuated with the machismo radiated by the country's Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, who, as soon as war was declared against their native land, ordered that the women be rounded-up and shipped posthaste to prison camps. As a boy, Zeffirelli wrote, the women were to be seen in the streets one day, the next they were gone.

In the film, motherless young Luca (Charlie Lucas) is taken under the wing of the kindly Miss Mary (Joan Plowright) after he tries to run away. He is instructed in an appreciation of the fine arts by another lady (Judi Dench), while a third (Maggie Smith) huffs and wonders why they should bother with the child. After going away to school in Austria and coming back, seemingly unaffected by the rising tide of Nazism, the teenaged Luca (Baird Wallace) helps to get all the nice British ladies out of prison and into a hotel for the duration of the war, with some help from a rich American expatriate (Cher, looking gorgeous) and an archaeologist (Lily Tomlin) who wears slacks. The Americans are the most kind and generous of all.

This film would scarcely be worth writing about at all were it not for the ludicrous amount of acting talent recruited, with scant results. Zeffirelli goes in for grand, broad strokes instead of narrative detail, so there are large gaps in the plot, but the women's roles seem to have been snipped to pieces. Why cast Judi Dench as an art historian whose only defining characteristics are long, scraggly wisps of hair, and becoming hysterical over her dog? Looking down her imperious nose, Maggie Smith seems frozen in a rictus of the haughty characters she played in "A Room With a View" and "Howards End". As she showed in the director's previous "Jane Eyre", which featured William Hurt as the most ludicrously miscast Rochester in history, Joan Plowright can create both interest and a respectable persona even under the barest of circumstances. But the film keeps cutting away from Lily Tomlin every time it looks like she is just about to do something interesting. Only Cher emerges unscathed, and her funny, ingratiating, sincerely-felt performance seems to cut through the bologna from which most of the movie is made.

Zeffirelli has his cinematographer David Watkin shoot the film in a manner which is supposed to resemble the hand-tinted quality of antique photographs, but seems to leech the colour out of the picture; the approach is brutal on some of the older actresses. This brings up another, nagging concern. In "Jane Eyre", Zeffirelli gave Charlotte Gainsbourg's face a grey, potato-like look, and he cast Elle MacPherson in a supporting role but then refused to give her one decent close-up. "Tea With Mussolini" indicates that, while Franco Zeffirelli may continue to cast women in substantial roles in his films, he not only seems hardly interested in them, but openly contemptuous.

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