Tea with Mussolini
directed by Franco Zeffirelli
(MGM, 1999)

Florence, Italy, 1935.

Life is very good there for the colony of English and American expatriates who live out their autumn years or devote their lives to preserving the work of the Italian masters. But life is less good for Luca, the son of an Italian dressmaker who never married Luca's mother.

Unhappy with the church school where he's been dumped, Luca runs away, not from home -- but to home -- the home of his father's secretary, who takes him in and raises him the best she can.

Just how good a job Mary Wallace does she doesn't discover until years later, when their fortunes have reversed: the Fascists, under Benito Mussolini, decide to marginalize the English, then the Americans, and later to inter them.

Tea with Mussolini offers us a rare look at a little-known side of World War II -- an episode so rare it hasn't even been covered to death by The History Channel. Based on director Franco Zeffirelli's autobiography, it details events from the mid-1930s until the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944.

Yet it's neither a war film nor an antiwar film. Few bullets are fired, no bombs go off and very little blood is shed, though the English and American expatriates do make a life-or-death stand when the future of Italy's past is threatened by the retreating German army. Instead, Zeffirelli focuses on how the war affects the individual and collective lives of an unusual group of people caught in an unfortunate series of events.

At the group's core are two very different women: Lady Hester (Maggie Smith), widow of the former British ambassador and spiritual leader of Florence's stiff upper lips, and Elsa (Cher), an eccentric American Jew who changes last names too quickly to be saddled with any particular one. Both put their faith in different forces: Hester in Mussolini, who has assured her over tea that she and her friends are under his protection, and Elsa in her money, which she uses to advance Luca's fortunes and soften the blows struck against her English-speaking compatriots.

When both strategies fail, both women turn to Luca and his mentor, Wallace.

Tea with Mussolini could succeed on its originality alone, but there's much more to it than that: there's Zeffirelli's usual lush staging and the beauty of Florence and San Gimignano, neither of which escapes Zeffirelli's eyes for a moment.

Then there's the portrayal of Wallace by the much under-appreciated Joan Plowright. Though Cher gets top billing, Plowright gets the lion's share of the screen time. Given the quality of their performances, it's clear she deserves it.

But there are sticking points as well, not the least of which is trying to cover nine years of war and peace in under two hours. That could be the land speed record for an autobiographical film, and it shortchanges many events and exchanges.

And Baird Wallace is a charming and handsome Luca, but he's far from deep. He has his moments, but not enough of them.

Tea with Mussolini is an offbeat film that viewers most likely will either love or hate. All I suggest is that you watch it -- carefully -- before you choose sides.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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