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Weekly Alibi "Tea with Mussolini"

By Devin D. O'Leary

MAY 17, 1999:  The inspiration for Tea with Mussolini is drawn from a chapter in the autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli; and if this is only one chapter in the acclaimed Italian director's life, then Zeffirelli has led an interesting existence indeed. Zeffirelli serves not only as inspiration for this lovely World War II-set comedic drama, he also climbs aboard as director and co-writer (along with British novelist and playwright John Mortimer).

Tea with Mussolini tells the story of Luca Innocenti (Zeffirelli's on-screen avatar), a young Italian boy born out of wedlock and not officially recognized by his upstanding businessman father. Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright), a British secretary working for Luca's father, encourages the man to be more of a role model to the young boy, but poor Luca finds himself shuttled from one boarding school to another. More often than not, Luca falls under the protective wing of Mary Wallace, who eventually "adopts" the boy and begins raising him to be a proper English gentleman.

Mary is among a coterie of British expatriates living in Florence. This elderly huddle of matrons gathers daily to discuss the merits of Elizabeth Barret Browning, the talents of Michelangelo and the beauty of Italian frescoes. Mostly, these English biddies flock together to talk about how terribly sophisticated they all are for having immersed themselves in the culture, architecture and art of Italy. Dubbed the "Scorpioni" by the locals for their sharp wit and backbiting behavior, these women represent the last bastion of proper Victorian culture. A better bunch of grand dames you could not find, however, since the casting call has included Plowright (Enchanted April), as well as Dame Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) and Maggie Smith (A Room with a View).

Our story begins in 1935, and for several years, Luca finds himself raised by this circle of artistic old ladies. Mary Wallace, acting as a surrogate mother, teaches Luca an appreciation for the words of Shakespeare. Arabella Delancey (Judi Dench), a dotty, dog-loving art restorer, imbues young Luca with a passion for Italian frescoes and statuary. Georgie (Lily Tomlin) pops in as a scrappy lesbian archeologist who teaches the boy a thing or two about history. Also part of the group is Elsa (Cher), a former Ziegfield dancer with a taste for modern art and ancient husbands, who ensures Luca's future with a substantial financial endowment. Thanks to this unorthodox collection of mother hens, Luca grows to have a fantastic appreciation for the artistic world. Only the aristocratic Lady Hester (Smith) manages to throw a wet blanket on things with her unnecessarily snooty behavior and unshakable belief that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is a fine fellow. But she, too, serves her purpose.

Unfortunately, the shadows of World War II are on the horizon, and Luca's father soon returns to send his son off to Austria. Seems dad has thrown his hat in with the fascists and would rather have his son grow up to be a proper German gentleman now.

While Luca is shipped off to school in Austria, the 1930s slip by, and things grow more and more difficult for the expatriates living in Florence. Mussolini's brownshirt brigades are daily harassing foreigners and arresting Jews. When Mussolini eventually declares war on England, the Scorpioni are rounded up as "enemy aliens" and sent off to a prison barracks. Eventually, Luca returns from Austria as a young man and labors to free his surrogate family.

Zeffirelli has long been noted as one of the most luscious visual filmmakers (as anyone who has seen his hallmark 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet can attest). Here he opts for a gauzy, nostalgic look, augmented by the ravishing visual architecture of Florence itself. Those who have seen British filmmaker John Boorman's World War II-era autobiography Hope and Glory will sense a similar sentimental nostalgia. Zeffirelli doesn't dwell much on the evils of Mussolini or the horrors of war. Although there are several serious subplots involving the underground resistance, Zeffirelli isn't interested in telling a war story. Here, he wants to create a loving portrait of the strong-willed, beauty-loving women who helped raise him. That he has accomplished, thanks largely to a stellar cast.

It's hard to find good film roles for women--never mind older women--and seeing so many finely crafted female characters is a real treat. Everyone dives into their roles with both appreciation and love. Cher's role as an aging party girl seems tailor crafted. Lily Tomlin has a ball with her small part. And the trio of Oscar nominees at the forefront put up a formidable wall of womanly gumption and British pride. I'm sure liberties have been taken with the actual events, but it's easy to see how Zeffirelli grew into the great artist that he is, thanks to this wondrous background.

Anyone with a fascination for European history or an appreciation for great art will quickly fall in love with Zeffirelli's heartfelt story, luminous cinematography and formidable cast. Tea with Mussolini is a poignant reminder that war doesn't simply destroy lives--it also destroys beauty.

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