JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Tea With Mussolini (Director: Franco Zeffirelli) - January 12, 2003
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Tea With Mussolini

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3.5 3.5
117 min.

Reviewed at the 2003 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Women as mothers of us all

“Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee;
Corruption wins not more than honesty.
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace,
Let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy country’s,
Thy God’s, and truth’s”

King Henry VIII, Act III, Scene II

In Franco Zeffirelli’s quasi autobiographical Tea with Mussolini (co-written with John Mortimer), young Luca’s (Charlie Lucas, whose knowing innocence was spot on) goal is to become the perfect British gentlemen, while the fascist dictator wishes his people to dominate and eliminate—as appropriate—first all of the British, then the Americans and Jews from any land. Neither quite succeeds, but the journey is fascinating.

It falls to the self-exiled English Scorpioni (Judi Dench as Arabella the fresco-mad art protector delivers the role with compelling passion, Joan Plowright’s Mary captures every scene as it’s her lot to raise the “bastard” son of an Italian merchant opportunist, and Maggie Smith who revels in her role as Lady Hester Random, ambassadorial widow and grand dame of good taste whether in up-scale Florence hotels, or “soldiering on” in a dirty barracks after being “taken into custody”—an arrest was simply too vulgar) to provide Luca’s education in all things artistic. Two very Americans, Cher as the marriage-by-balance-sheet Elsa Morganthal Strauss-Armistan and Lily Tomlin as the wonderfully “lesbotic” Georgie, ensure that Luca the elder’s (played by the perpetually handsome Baird Wallace) initiation into the other parts of life covers all the bases from vice to lust to the pursuit of beauty. The banter, jealousy and cattiness among these charming stereotypes of the Anglo-American lifestyle sweepstakes make much of this engaging film a winner.

But the real star, art, is the never far below the visual bounty or plot’s direction. Having arranged an audience with the Italian despot following an incredibly metaphoric scene where the black shirts literally toss paintings out of the window, we are astonished to learn of Mussolini’s professed admiration for “your Lord Byron’s poetry.” And the looks between the campy tea boys allowed Zeffirelli another little dig at the “superior race doctrine.”

The architecture of Florence and San Gimignano are the story’s stunning backdrops, captured magnificently by David Watkin’s camera. From the vast array of the “body beautiful” at the Instituto d’Arte, to the fountains, statues to the opening over-the-top “rendering” of Browning-by-the-grave (accompanied by a solo violin whose left-hand slides provided just the right amount of sickly-sweet aural reinforcement) to the spectacular slide show of contemporary art in an unforgettable scene as Elsa turned Luca onto fine art at a private showing in her villa, art abounds.

Particularly telling was Luca’s discovery of Shakespeare as he and Mary “perform” the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet using lamp lighting, a stand-up cardboard set, and actors-on-a-stick. They regale each other with thoughts of undying love until, like so many scenes in the Bard’s canon, their idyllic moment is truncated by the sudden arrival of soldiers who have never recited a rhyming couplet.

Not everything worked. Comparing Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony to the output of a failed artist didn’t ring true. Then, forcing Lady Hester’s grandson into drag so as to remain under the cover and protection of the ladies seemed more designed to provide funny lines for Georgie rather than the avoidance of certain death. Nonetheless, his d√©nouement wasn’t difficult to watch!

In the end the frescoes were saved, the Nazi’s routed, the “ugly American” rescued (thanks to a wonderful scene of humble “tart” between Elsa and Lady Hester), and many lessons were learned by the abandoned then adopted son.

Like all good biographies, the facts were assisted by some generous truths, but peering into the life of one of our most remarkable artists adds yet another dimension and understanding to his previous work. JWR

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