Movie Review By Heather Clisby
"Tea With Mussolini" is a Franco Zeffirelli film taken from a section of the filmmaker's autobiography. Detailing his odd upbringing in Florence, Italy before and during WWII, he's rounded up a cast that will make your head spin - Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Lily Tomlin and Cher. With so many estrogen-charged talents in one place, the film is a wonderful study of characters and history, infused with artistic passion and strange relationships.
Luca Innocenti, born out of wedlock to his businessman father, is taken under the wing of Mary, the father's secretary, played by the unflappable Plowright. When she asks her cadre of lady friends to pitch in, they are delighted for the challenge. All his father wants him to be is "a perfect British gentleman." Until politics changes everything, that is. Luca is played as a youngster by bright-eyed Charlie Lucas and as a young man by Baird Wallace - both actors exude optimism through the character, despite facing life with primarily alone.
Judi Dench - do actresses get much better than this? - is Arabella, the untalented art lover nearly drunk and definitely silly with her own passion. It is she who opens the boy's eyes to the breath of life through painting and sculptures, illustration and light. From then on, he strives to be an artist.
Maggie Smith plays the pinched properness of Lady Hester Random with expert sourness. Hester is the widow of the English ambassador and fancies herself a protected friend of Mussolini. It is her misguided visit to the military bully where the film takes its' name. With a running distaste for the Yankee kind, Hester sneers at Luca's giant sundae, "Americans can even vulgarize ice cream."
Can never get enough of Lily Tomlin, as Georgie, the lesbian archeologist always ready to be the bodyguard and put the ladies in their place with witty barbs. God, this woman just gets funnier. Love her.
Cher is Elsa, the rich American who not only appreciates art but purchases it every chance she gets. Her past relationship with Lucas's dead mother creates a special bond between the young man and this kindly sexpot. It's a sparkling role for Cher but those close-ups still scare me.
As the war slowly dawns on the upper-crusty alien population, their poetic lives with tea at precisely 4 o'clock is threatened. Stubbornly they refuse to return back to the Motherland and face the realities of war with disbelief.
Told through the loving eyes of Luca/Zeffirelli, it is a colorful study of Florence itself contrasted with the shattering drab coldness of a military takeover. Not to worry though, the boy is still enjoying his bright future.
© 1999 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 5/12/99
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