Sunny, and Cher

World War II gets the whimsical treatment in the annoying Tea With Mussolini.

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Even English actresses of a certain age have a difficult time finding good roles, so it's understandable that Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Joan Plowright might jump at the chance to star in Tea With Mussolini, Franco Zeffirelli's new film about a group of English expatriates living in Florence during the 1930s, who willfully ignore the ominous war clouds gathering over Europe. Based on the Italian director's own childhood, the picture is a bit precious, even frivolous--especially after such visceral experiences as Saving Private Ryan--but it is clearly intended as a sweetly nostalgic memory piece in which the true horrors of the period are assiduously avoided.

Written by Zeffirelli and British playwright/novelist John Mortimer (TV's Rumpole of the Bailey), Tea With Mussolini is actually a coming-of-age story about a young, illegitimate Italian boy named Luca Innocenti, whose mother has died and who is not officially acknowledged by his father. The boy (played as a seven-year-old by newcomer Charlie Lucas and at seventeen by Baird Wallace, also making his feature debut) is adopted by a clan of strong-willed, eccentric Englishwomen known around Florence as the "Scorpioni" for their sharp tongues and abrasive manner.

The group includes the sensible and determined Mary Wallace (Plowright), who works part-time as a secretary to Luca's father, and who enlists the other women in her scheme to save the boy from an orphanage; the imperious Lady Hester Random (Smith); and Arabella Delancey (Dench), a passionate advocate of all things artistic. Although they have chosen to leave England and live in Florence, the women remain obstinately British: refusing to learn Italian, insisting upon tea every afternoon, and demanding a certain formal civility from everyone they encounter. Apolitical in the extreme, they also ignore the tensions rising in Europe.

The group also includes two Americans: Elsa Morganthal (Cher), a wealthy adventuress who was a friend of Luca's mother, and Georgie Rockwell (Lily Tomlin), an openly lesbian archeologist. An inveterate snob, Lady Hester looks down on Americans, sniffing disdainfully, "It's amazing. They can even vulgarize ice cream."

The widow of a British envoy, Lady Hester has deluded herself into thinking that she has a special relationship with Mussolini. (The pivotal scene involving Hester taking tea with the dictator was inspired by a true incident in which Violet Trefusis, the colorful English intellectual who lived for many years in a villa outside Florence, actually did meet the dictator.) The episode serves as a metaphor for the rampant illusion among the expatriates that the war would not touch them.

But the narcissism behind their refusal to see what clearly was going on in the world makes the film irritating in a way that Zeffirelli clearly did not intend. The war presented here is a sanitized version; nothing truly terrible happens to anyone. Even Elsa, who is Jewish, is blithely unaware of what is going on in Germany and the danger she faces. This lack of attentiveness makes the women look silly and petty, while the few war-related sequences, such as scenes of Lucas and Lady Hester's nephew in the Italian Underground, don't seem the least bit authentic.

The film might have worked better if it had unfolded more through Luca's eyes. Zeffirelli apparently intended this to be the case--he is the Luca character and actually lived much of the story--but he hasn't pulled it off. Tea With Mussolini doesn't come close to John Boorman's captivating Hope and Glory, which managed to address the terrible destructiveness and misery of the war as well as the magical adventure it offered its young protagonist.

Tea With Mussolini.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Written by John Mortimer and Zeffirelli. Starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Cher, and Lily Tomlin.

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