Tea With Mussolini

on May 14, 1999 by L.J. Strom
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   Franco Zeffirelli's autobiography serves as the source material for "Tea with Mussolini," the story of an Italian boy and a group of expatriate British and American women in Italy on the eve of World War II. Luca (the child version played by Charlie Lucas, the teen incarnation by Baird Wallace) has been effectively abandoned by his father, and as his mother is dead, Mary (Joan Plowright), the father's secretary, takes him in. She shares the task of rearing him with a colony of feisty English women headed by Lady Hester (Maggie Smith), the ambassador's widow, who believes she has a special relationship with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. When war breaks out, the women depend on this relationship to protect them, even though they are now "enemy aliens" in their beloved adopted country. Two "vulgar" Americans, meanwhile, are thrown into custody with them, an excavator (Lily Tomlin) and a rich, brassy art collector (Cher) who knew Luca's mother. As the true nature of fascism becomes apparent, the women are compelled to examine their beliefs, and Luca learns he has some growing up to do.
   Visually, the film has much to offer, from the period costumes to the Florentine locations to the art that forms a key lifeline for the characters. The English members of the cast are also first-rate, particularly Maggie Smith as the indomitably British but ultimately self-deluding leader of the women.
   Cher and Tomlin play the Americans with gusto, but their acting style is so different from that of their English counterparts and their presence so fiercely contemporary that they seem to be in another film. The biggest stumbling block, though, is the unfocused, occasionally rambling script that evokes a period but not a point of view. Despite its autobiographical origin, the film has a surprisingly impersonal feel, and Luca's perspective is never sufficiently explored or embraced for a convincing coming-of-age story.    Starring Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Cher, Lily Tomlin and Judi Dench. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Written by John Mortimer and Franco Zeffirelli. Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni and Clive Parsons. An MGM release. Drama. Rated PG for thematic elements, language, brief nudity and some mild violence. Running time: 115 min.
Tags: Starring Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Cher, Lily Tomlin, Judi Dench. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Written by John Mortimer and Franco Zeffirelli. Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni, Clive Parsons, Lily Tomlin and Judi Dench. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Written by John Mortimer and Franco Zeffirelli. Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni and Clive Parsons, MGM, Drama
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