Tea With Mussolini
By Steve Davis
MAY 17, 1999:
D: Franco Zeffirelli; with Cher, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, Judi Dench, Charlie Lucas, Baird Wallace, Massimo Ghini, Paolo Seganti. (PG, 116 min.)
Tea With Mussolini sounds like an elegant affair, but its pinky is barely extended.
Franco Zeffirelli's contrived autobiographical film about his youth in fascist Italy
has little social grace -- it's embarrassingly awkward, like a dilettante playing
the doyenne. The plot embellishments are many -- poetic license is exercised with
little restraint here -- so much so that the movie has a fabricated, even fake feel
about it. (Shades of Lillian Hellman and Julia.) Aside from Zeffirelli's self-ennoblement,
the primary purpose of Tea With Mussolini appears to be casting actresses who have
either perfected playing similar roles over the years or who have actually lived
those parts: flamboyant, nouveau riche American entertainer (Cher); repressed, annoying
Englishwoman with an eventual heart of gold (Smith); kindhearted, nurturing Englishwoman
with a constant heart of gold (Plowright); and rowdy lesbian (Tomlin). These colorful
women, expatriates living in Florence, raise the motherless Luca (Zeffirelli's alter
ego) in a way that's meant to be unconventional -- where's Auntie Mame when you need
her? Luca's sentimental education is darkened by the rise of Il Duce and the advent
of World War II, but those historical events play like a fairy tale in this movie.
(The film's frequent superimposed titles, specifying the time and place, are oddly
like those used in newsreels; the effect is unintentionally comic.) Even the beauty
of Tuscany is shortchanged in Tea With Mussolini -- David Watkin's bleached-out cinematography
is probably intended for nostalgic effect, but it just looks as if the film was overexposed.
No doubt that the aging Zeffirelli wanted to wax rhapsodically about his formative
years in Tea With Mussolini, but sadly enough, the end product is an exercise in
corn. Let's just hope that he hasn't inspired other filmmakers to do the same. Leni
Riefenstahl and Coffee With Hitler, anyone?
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