Friends, Romans, Cameramen . . .

David Gritten, based in England, is a regular contributor to Calendar

It is a breathtaking setting, and one being hugely appreciated by three of Britain's greatest actresses, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright.

They sit on the roof terrace of Rome's Hotel Eden while, below, the Eternal City basks in the warmth of a vivid orange setting sun. The scented air is still. Waiters, apparently unbidden, bring glasses of chilled Frascati wine every few minutes.

"Not too shabby, is it?" says Dench brightly, in that understated British manner. Smith goes along with the mood, raising an ironic eyebrow: "It certainly could be worse."

It could. Admittedly the three actresses were enjoying a day off in Rome--but then even workdays in Italy hold tangible charms. And this seems to be the main reason why it was the location of choice for several high-profile films this summer.

Dench, Smith and Plowright have joined forces with Cher for "Tea With Mussolini," a semiautobiographical film by director Franco Zeffirelli, whom the trio have all known for more than 30 years; they play the "Scorpioni," bitingly witty and eccentric English expatriates in Florence in the 1930s who harbor a stubborn admiration for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini--until their eyes are opened by his government's harsh, oppressive measures.

The script was co-written by Zeffirelli and English novelist and writer John Mortimer (who scripted the PBS TV series "Rumpole"). Much of "Tea With Mussolini" was shot in the Tuscany region of Italy, north of Rome, which Mortimer loves and has often written about; locations included the historic towers of San Gimigniano and Florence itself.

On some days in the city, the actresses found themselves literally yards from the cast and crew of another film, "Up at the Villa," adapted from a Somerset Maugham novella, starring Kristin Scott Thomas as an English widow who is something of a femme fatale. It is also set in the 1930s, so the production designers of both films competed to use not only Tuscany's ancient piazzas, duomos and campaniles, but also some of Florence's striking fascist-era architecture such as the Santa Maria Novella railway station.

The villa of the title is featured in several scenes. The one used by the production is near Siena and owned by an English aristocrat and former British government minister, Lord Lambton.

In "Tea With Mussolini," Cher plays a flamboyant American modern art collector (loosely based on Peggy Guggenheim) who also has an imposing home; shooting took place inside the 18th century Villa Parisi at Frascati, near Rome, now stripped of its furniture and used exclusively for film sets.

Meanwhile, a Hollywood version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart, David Strathairn and Stanley Tucci, also has been shooting in Italy this summer.

The forest for this "Dream" adaptation was re-created at Rome's legendary Cinecitta studios. But for other exterior scenes, Tuscany was again the favored location; the production based itself in Montepulciano, a ravishingly beautiful Renaissance-era hill town.

The furious filming activity is not yet over. Another major film has just begun shooting in Italy: Miramax's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," adapted from Patricia Highsmith's book and starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow. The film is significant for another reason; it is the first by director Anthony Minghella since he made "The English Patient," the multiple-Oscar winner from 1996.

This sudden rush to make English-speaking films in Italy is a departure; in recent years, they have been a rarity. There was Bernardo Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty" a couple of years back, Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing," "Othello" with Branagh and Laurence Fishburne. The Sylvester Stallone mountain adventure film "Cliffhanger" (1993) was shot in the Italian Dolomites (doubling for the Rockies) and at Cinecitta. And that was about it.

Why the turnaround? Two main reasons. With the Italian lira fairly weak, money spent in Italy by foreign filmmakers goes further. And the current Italian government is keen to encourage productions from abroad. Giovannella Zannoni, one of the Italian producers on "Tea With Mussolini," talked enthusiastically about the effect on Italy's domestic film market too.

"Italian audiences are slowly coming back," she said. "There have been 15 years of them not seeing Italian films. This past year we have had three Italian films on our chart of top-grossing films. It is the first time that has happened for many years."

Italy, of course, was a crucial part of world cinema in the era following World War II. Neo-realist directors like Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica were huge influences on anyone wishing to make movies stripped of Hollywood's artificial gloss and escapist values.

In the '50s and '60s, Antonioni's cool, alienated, angst-ridden films and the brilliant, flamboyant, sometimes grotesque vision of Federico Fellini won acclaim internationally. Bertolucci has been regarded as a director of world stature since the '70s, and Zeffirelli is globally renowned (as a director of theater and opera as well as film), though many critics today find his work overblown and excessively sentimental.

Yet Italian cinema has unquestionably been in decline since the early 1980s; its seminal figures retired or died, and Bertolucci, the greatest Italian filmmaker still working, became involved in making international co-productions ("The Last Emperor," "The Sheltering Sky") outside his native country. Italian audiences, like those in so many other European countries, turned increasingly to imported American movies.

Now, according to Zannoni, the tide is turning: "There was a standstill with domestic films for many years. Now there are more being made than there have been for a long time."

As she spoke, a production assistant handed her a letter just delivered to the set. It bore good news: "Tea With Mussolini" had been named a film of "national cultural importance" by the Italian government. The label carries more than mere prestige, because any domestic film granted this status can apply for a government loan of up to 70% of its Italian budget. And if the film fails to recoup its costs, the government can choose to write off up to 90% of its loan as a gift.

"The government has given a push," Zannoni said with a shrug. "It has helped Italian films, but apart from that, I don't know why so many people [from abroad] are wanting to come and film in Italy."

One suspects the answer might be right under her nose; Italy in summer is its own best advertisement. Dench, Smith and Plowright would agree that shooting in Rome and Tuscany beats working in, say, Ohio. Or as Strathairn, the Duke in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," put it as he waited between scenes in the sumptuous grounds of the 17th century Palazzo Farnese, north of Rome: "You pick locations like this, you can point the camera anywhere. It's always going to look good. Why would you not want to work somewhere like this?"

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