Friday May 14, 1999
Franco Zeffirelli's lively, fanciful "Tea With Mussolini" draws upon the Italian director's memories of growing up in Florence in the increasingly fascist Italy of the 1930s. Felicitously combining events real and imagined with his co-writer, English novelist and playwright--and longtime Tuscan resident--John Mortimer, Zeffirelli has created an amusing yet touching high adventure and an unusual coming-of-age tale.
Perhaps best of all, he and Mortimer have fashioned no less than five fine roles for five splendid actresses: Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith and Lily Tomlin.
Whereas Dench, Plowright and Smith are stalwarts of the international cinema, Cher and Tomlin possess such distinctive personalities and talents that screen roles worthy of them don't come along all that often. But when they do, as is the case here, they know how to run with them.
Cher's Elsa is a brassy Ziegfeld Follies alumna with a penchant for marrying elderly sugar daddies. She's taken Europe by storm, like the Unsinkable Molly Brown before her, and has developed a taste for collecting modern art--and attracting handsome Italian men; her beautiful oval face would have transported Modigliani. Elsa is good-natured, generous and flamboyant and wears with panache the boldest of the '30s styles (designed for the film by Ermanno Daelli).
Florence is a magnet for her, and she's struck up a warm friendship with Tomlin's hearty archeologist, Georgie, who when it comes to dancing partners, doesn't hesitate in picking out a pretty girl instead of a man.
No wonder these two breezy, outspoken, unconventional American women have bonded, for they are regarded with undisguised disapproval by Lady Hester Random (Smith), widow of a former British ambassador to Italy, and the haughty leader of a small colony of British ladies, most of a certain age, who have long lived in Florence. Most prominent in Lady Hester's group are Dench's Arabella and Plowright's Mary.
Arabella is an artist who takes her fashion cues from the Pre-Raphaelites, but whose knowledge of Florentine art treasures and concern for their preservation is deep and impassioned. Having lost both her father and her fiance in the Great War, the sensible, staunch Mary lives modestly and is employed as a secretary/English translator to a no-account count (Jack Basehart), a playboy with an insanely jealous wife. He owns a small but elegant clothing fabric store, and he has fathered a son out of wedlock with a talented fashion designer--"better than Schiaparelli," declares Elsa--who has died.
Reluctantly at first, Mary takes in the small son, Luca (Charlie Lucas)--Zeffirelli's alter ego--unable to leave him consigned to an orphanage. The count hopes Luca turns out to be "a perfect English gentleman."
For a time, Luca's life is a colorful idyll with the five women focusing their loving attention on the boy and firing his imagination in ways that will shape his destiny. But Mussolini and his thuggish brown shirts step up their terrorist ways, targeting foreigners in particular.
Unfortunately, the British and American women alike are reluctant to take a hint; the staggeringly obtuse Lady Hester even arranges to have tea with Mussolini, coming away assured that she and her friends have nothing to fear. (This incident was inspired by an actual meeting the expatriate English intellectual Violet Trefusis had with the dictator.)
Time passes, Elsa comes and goes, returning eventually to her magnificent art-filled villa, and by the time Luca (now played by Baird Wallace, in a smooth, effective transition) has reached 17 it's 1942, World War II is underway--and the five women are stubbornly still there, eventually sequestered by the military in the 14th century town of San Gimignano. They have now entered a period of adventure and danger, a time in which their spirit and character will be severely tested.
At the beginning of the picture no two women could seem more unalike than Elsa and Hester--they mutually loathe each other. Yet in time we discover how much they are alike in their naivete and in their capacity to rise to the occasion. Cher and Smith play their big moment of truth scene with the aplomb of Bette Davis and Mary Astor in "The Great Lie."
There are some scary, somber moments in this lushest of period pieces, yet Zeffirelli wisely sustains a gallant, predominantly blithe spirit throughout. "Tea With Mussolini" leaves you feeling that, if in reality not everything that Zeffirelli recalls had quite so much dash, whimsy and gallantry, it's the way it should have been.
Tea With Mussolini, 1999. PG, for thematic elements, language, brief nudity and some mild violence. Film-Cattleya-Cineritmo (Rome)/General Productions (London). Director Franco Zeffirelli. Producers Riccardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni, Clive Parsons. Executive producer Marco Chimenz. Screenplay by John Mortimer and Zeffirelli; based on "The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli." Cinematographer David Watkin. Editor Tariq Anwar. Music Allesio Vlad and Stefano Arnaldi. Cher's costumes designed by Ermanno Daelli for the Scervino Collection. Costumes Jenny Beavan, Anna Anni, Alberto Spiazzi. Production designer John Paino. Art director Jim Donahue. Set decorator Rona De Angelo. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Cher as Elsa Morganthal. Judi Dench as Arabella Delancey. Joan Plowright as Mary Wallace. Maggie Smith as Lady Hester Random. Lily Tomlin as Georgie. Charlie Lucas as Luca Innocenti as a child. Baird Wallace as Luca at 17. An MGM presentation of an Italo-British co-production as Medusa.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times