Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle 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?
1.5 stars

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