Tea with Mussolini
aka Un tè con Mussolini
First screened and reviewed in May 1999
Director: Franco Zeffirelli. Cast: Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher, Baird Wallace, Lily Tomlin, Judi Dench, Charlie Lucas, Paolo Seganti, Paul Chequer, Massimo Ghini, Mino Bellei. Screenplay: John Mortimer and Franco Zeffirelli (based on the autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli).

Twitter Capsule: A campier, more crowded Enchanted April belatedly restyled into a Resistance narrative. All as bad as it sounds.

VOR:   So many dubious tropes colliding: that Great actors don't need great material; that art is more valuable than people; that one's rosy memory of childhood is to be trusted.

Photo © 1999 G2 Films
Almost every frame of Franco Zeffirelli's Tea with Mussolini calls to mind that old homily that it's the thought that counts. As in, nice try, Franco: we know you were going for a rosy-lensed valentine to the domestic heroines of your childhood, and that's sweet and commendable. Unfortunately, though, all you've wound up with is a big mess. Friends of Zeffirelli and Florence enthusiasts will love this film, in the way that grandmothers love the pictures that boys and girls draw for them, despite the fact that the colors are all wrong and the scrawling goes so far out of the lines that the artist's original intent is a matter of some mystery. Having made his cinematic name with two popular Shakespeare adaptations of the 1960s, the Taylor-Burton Taming of the Shrew and the extraordinarily successful high-school staple Romeo and Juliet, Zeffirelli has gone on to make increasingly uneven, weirdly cold adaptations of Great Literature, culminating in 1996's notably chilly Jane Eyre with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg. In some ways, Tea with Mussolini, with its sun-splashed Florentine vistas and its warm comic ambitions, will seem like a step away from Zeffirelli's more stately projects. (His principal calling as an opera director, for better or worse, is often evident in his lavish sets and his minimal or broad direction of actors.) Whether or not Tea with Mussolini is a departure for Zeffirelli, it is certainly not a good movie, nor does it ever stake a convincing claim of what it finally means to express, or to whom, or why.

The film mostly centers around a group of five expatriate women—three English, two American—who together raised young Zeffirelli after the death of his never-married mother. The scenario is poignant and full of possibility, but unfortunately lacks the quality of seeming altogether true. Tea with Mussolini itself, viewed independently from its tearjerking press release, tells a different, somewhat addled tale. In point of fact, there are several women, seemingly a dozen or two, who together raised young Franco, renamed Luca in the movie. The only persuasive case for isolating five of the characters as Luca's primary nurturers are because they are played by Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher, Lily Tomlin, and Judi Dench, and the studio marketing machine is nothing if not star-driven. Really, who would see a flick in which an orphan was brought up by a pack of expatriate extras?

The largest role is Plowright's as Mary Wallace, the English secretary to Luca's no-good Italian father. Single, plumpish old softie that she is, Mary agrees to take the boy under her warm wing after her employer shows no interest in assuming parental responsibility. Maggie Smith plays Lady Hester Random, the affected wife of England's now-dead ambassador to Italy, whose tirelessly professed intimacy with Mussolini—a flukish lunch she once shared with Il Duce gives the film its title—is just as aggravating to the women around her as it is to us. Dench plays Arabella, a shawl-and-headwrap Bohemian who does interpretive dances while mourning the anniversary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death, and makes other strange gestures commensurate with her artiste reputation. She is not taken altogether seriously by her companions, and the only two reasons why Zeffirelli spends any time with her (and it's not much) are a) because she is an obvious encourager of Luca's interest in art, and b) because Dench quite generously agreed to play this strange, undernourished part.

The other two women who appear prominently in Tea with Mussolini are notable for how little they have in common with their British peers and how little they seem to like them. Cher plays Elsa Morganthal, a wildly rich American art collector and a deliberately, outrageously plainspoken affront to the British ladies in whose midst she drops herself. Tomlin, meanwhile, has as thankless a role as Dench. She plays Georgie, an American archaeologist who never once seems to dig for or discover anything in the Italian soil. She is one of those charming cinematic staples: the "mannish," wisecracking lesbian. Rather than exhibiting any real personality, Georgie comes armed into the film with naught but her homosexuality and her scabrous wit to persuade us of her dramatic interest. It's an uphill battle all the way, but Tomlin is a likable and humble enough performer that we indulge Georgie's scenes more than we should.

One of Tea with Mussolini's crucial pitfalls is that we are never, ever for a moment permitted to forget what a sterling cast has been assembled to tell this story. The picture alleges to be a memoir of Il Duce's attempt to uproot all the Allied nationals living in his country and break their spirit in gray, austere holding zones. Actually, though, Tea with Mussolini feels more than anything like a celebration of All Things Fine in Florence, only dimly troubled when at all. Fine statuary! Fine glass! Fine imported actresses! Smith, whom I like very much, and Plowright, whom I tend to find tiresome, are asked to conform as precisely as possible to their most typecasted characters: respectively, the arch, officious snob and the doddery, unflappable earth mother. Both actresses acquit themselves, but we presume that they only participated from a kind wish to help Zeffirelli write a love letter to his caretakers, or perhaps to take an appealing vacation.

The only actress who gets anywhere with her role is Cher. Like her colleagues, the official Best Sport in American pop culture is playing close to type, but her outsized, iconic-yet-iconoclastic presence is a welcome relief from the fusty, showy Englishness of the rest of the production. Elsa is willful and independent enough to come and go in Italy absolutely at her leisure, and she teaches Luca some important, offhanded lessons about being yourself and standing up for what you believe in. Cher is such a gifted, intuitive actress, and her presence is so commandingly sincere, that we are as thrilled to be in her company as is the young boy, who eventually harbors a sort of crush on her. Unlike Smith, whose lines are written as self-conscious punchlines and cannot be delivered any other way, Cher delivers her speeches as heartfelt, blowzily articulate expressions of the qualities she has always stood for: emancipation, resilience, self-reliance, and generosity. A plotline in which her character proves foolish enough to be duped by a manipulative suitor (Paolo Seganti) helps to make Elsa less purely angelic than she might otherwise have seemed, but Zeffirelli may have had ulterior motives. By endangering the one character for whom the audience is likely to feel anything, he co-opts some easy sympathy points even as we grow increasingly indifferent to the movie at large.

If I have talked primarily about the acting in this picture, and therefore said little about production values, story, photography, or editing, it is because the filmmakers themselves show so little interest in these areas. The costumes, particularly Elsa's, are laudable in that predictable, period-piece way, but otherwise the film is shockingly leaden in its construction. Camera angles seem chosen at random and take us even further away from the characters than the blockheaded script already makes us. Often the actresses appear as white pointillist dots onscreen, as Zeffirelli zooms back to capture as much Beauty and Culture as possible.

Late in the picture, Zeffirelli attempts to recast these biddies as war heroes, primarily for saving the art of Florence from the ravages of tanks and bombs. For all their efforts, we cannot share in the director's enthusiasm. The very title of Tea with Mussolini refers to how naïve and unreflecting these women often were, so the eleventh-hour attempt to valorize them as champions of the Allied Cause seems wishful and misguided. Zeffirelli, in remembering his childhood protectors so affectionately, is unwilling to criticize their very real failings of comprehension and moral sense. By so clearly laundering its portrayals of these often dimwitted women, the picture quickly loses its intended patriotic resonance.

In the end, art and suffocating tastefulness are taken as such inherent goods in Tea with Mussolini that they utterly overwhelm the real people whom the film pretends to showcase. Typical of this insanely aestheticist-gone-wrong perspective is a scene in which Mussolini's stormtroopers beseige a room where the wealthy English gentry are having tea. Briefly we observe an unconvinced-looking actor take a glancing blow from a soldier's baton. For more than a minute, however, we see close-ups of stained glass being broken, of chinaware being smashed, and of art being thrown out a window. Are we to imagine such recklessness with finery the worst offense of the fascists. Are these the most brutal acts performed in World War II-era Italy? Mussolini and his henchmen come across here as villains mostly because they had no respect for quality painting or 4 o'clock scones. If that in itself seems like a war-crime to you—not merely a symptom or a casualty of war, but the actual nadir of international conflict—then Tea with Mussolini might be for you. Otherwise, rent virtually any other movie starring these peerless actresses and have tea with someone else. Grade: D

British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Supporting Actress (Smith)

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