Un tè con Mussolini (1999)


(director/writer: Franco Zeffirelli; screenwriters: John Mortimer/based on “The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli”; cinematographer: David Watkin; editor: Tariq Anwar; cast: Cher (Elsa), Judi Dench (Arabella), Joan Plowright (Mary), Maggie Smith (Lady Hester), Lily Tomlin (Georgie), Charlie Lucas (Luca as a child), Baird Wallace (Luca), Paolo Seganti (Vittorio), Paul Chequer (Wilfred), Tessa Pritchard (Connie); Runtime: 117; MGM/G2; 1999-UK/Italy)

“A ridiculous movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tea With Mussolini” is based on the semiautobiography of the film’s director and co-screenwriter Franco Zeffirelli. It tells of a boy named Luca (he is supposed to be the director), born out of wedlock to an English clothing designer living in Florence. His mother is dead and his married father doesn’t want him and the child can’t stand being in an orphanage, so he runs away. The British secretary in his father’s silk business, an elderly expatriate named Mary (Joan Plowright), takes a liking to the kid and decides to raise him on her own to be a perfect English gentleman — just as his father wishes.

The film opens in the Florence of 1935 at a memorial service for the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who died in Florence in the 19th century. A group of expatriates pay their annual respects to her. These English expatriates feel very comfortable in Italy, excited by all the art around them. Il Duce is still perceived as a civilized gentleman, who makes the trains run on time. They desperately want to be loyal to Italy. The old biddies are portrayed by a collection of actresses well-adapted to being hams. Maggie Smith is Lady Hester, the chief chewer of scenery, the de-facto leader of the group and number one snob. Because of her biting tongue she is known as the I Scorpioni, a name that unfairly sticks to this gaggle of English ladies. Though, Lady Hester seems to be the only one with an acid tongue. Lily Tomlin is the American, a bold lesbian archeologist, in a role that is inconsequential; she doesn’t even have any funny lines, but she’s always smiling, dressed in pants, and sunburned (the reason for her being so happy, is that she is probably daydreaming about some of her better roles). Cher is a wealthy and vulgar Jewish-American named Elsa, an ex-Broadway actress who keeps trading in old husbands who either die or a divorce results. Either way her bank account grows and she uses that money to collect art, she is especially interested in collecting Picassos. Judi Dench is Arabella, a dizzy painter and lover of the arts, in a role that gives her no room to be anything but a stereotypical English old biddy. She has the most embarrassing line in the film, as she explains to Luca why she remains in Italy “I have warmed both hands before the fires of Michelangelo and Botticelli.”

These old English ladies love to gather in Doney’s Tea Room and at the Galleria Uffizi and to be served tea at exactly 4 p.m., enjoyably gossiping about one another and talking about their past. When Elsa enters the group, Lady Hester puts her nose in the air and mentions how much she detests her because of her sordid lifestyle. Lady Hester sets the tone and proper standards for how this snooty group behaves.

Things abroad begin to get more tense due to Hitler’s aggression and Mussolini’s pact with him, and even the civilized city of Florence seems to be getting less friendly. Lady Hester has undying faith in Mussolini and uses her political influence when her late husband was the British ambassador to Italy, to secure a meeting with the head of the Brown Shirts. Mussolini assures her that he personally guarantees the safety of the English expatriates. The newspaper headline features a picture with Mussolini and her having tea.

But when England enters the war, all things change and the expatriates are rounded up and locked up in a barracks. The strangest scene, is when Lady Hester’s grandson (Paul Chequer) dresses up as a woman so he can be with granny. He is finally so ashamed, he strips off his dress and goes yelling in the street “I’m a man.” He then joins the Resistance (Now what was that all about!). When Elsa hears of the English ladies jailed she has Luca secretly arrange for the ladies to be sent to an expensive hotel, where she generously pays the bill. Lady Hester thinks Mussolini realized his mistake of putting them in a barracks and is now responsible for taking care of them in such a grand manner.

America declares war and Elsa is trapped in Italy. She has foolishly fallen in love with her young chauffeur (Seganti). He’s a weasel who sells her fake art, tricks her into signing over all her money to him, and then betrays her to the fascists.

The film ends on a melodramatic note and if this wasn’t supposed to be a true story, it would be one that was hard to fathom. For instance how could Cher playing a Jewess be so non-chalant about being a Jew in a Fascist country and even more absurdly, fall in love with a Fascist and trust him with all her money!

This was a ridiculous movie; it had flat dialogue and stiff characterizations; but, fortunately it takes place in beautiful Florence, where art is a way of life and the landscape is gorgeous. It is hard to believe that Luca is Franco Zeffirelli, he seemed so out of it. The role seemed to have nothing to say, as if he wasn’t there when he was there. His heroics as a 17-year-old with the Resistance Movement seemed unconvincing. Also the actor who played him, Baird Wallace, was very stiff and made his presence felt in a very awkward manner. Since the film is supposedly about the director blossoming to become a great artist, I saw no evidence of this. This is a third-rate production. The 10 years of history it spans from 1935-45, seemed as if it was inhabited by a bunch of snobs and dabblers in the arts who wouldn’t know the difference between Mussolini and Churchill unless they were thrown in jail by one of them.