The English ladies have been living for years in eccentric contentment amidst the paintings, frescoes, and sculptures of Florence.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

Tea With Mussolini is an absorbing misfire. The best of it is watching a handful of Britain's finest actresses make hay with their roles. The worst of it is that they are undermined by a flawed concept, some discordant casting, and disjointed direction. Unfortunately, the blame goes straight to Franco Zeffirelli, who directed this story from his own autobiography.

The English ladies have been living for years in eccentric contentment amidst the paintings, frescoes, and sculptures of Florence. One of them, Mary Ross (Joan Plowright), brings a small neglected boy into the heart of this community, where he will be raised with a love of art and a stiff set of British values. Luca (Charlie Lucas) soaks up his surroundings quietly with big sad eyes.

Arabella (Judi Dench) is a determined protector of art that is threatened by decay or war. She is also fiercely protective of the dog she adores. Lady Hester (Maggie Smith) is a snappish, grating presence who reserves her nastiest barbs for the Americans she loathes. "They have even found a way to vulgarize ice cream," she sneers. Coming from Maggie Smith, a muttered line, "Americans simply don't understand picnics," carries the force of universal condemnation, while a whisper about an American being "flagrantly immoral" is invested with delicious malice.

The Americans give her, and us, for that matter, plenty to be upset about. Lily Tomlin plays Georgie, a willful archaeologist who floats for no logical reason through the British encampment. Cher becomes Elsa, a world-traveling American art collector based loosely on the idea of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who may have been a flamboyant American figure in Europe, but surely didn't start her sentences with, "But y'know." Cher and Lily Tomlin are accomplished performers in their own contemporary American culture, but in this period context their strong personalities are jarring-a harsh colloquial tone in the dithery company they are keeping. In the Florence of 1935, neither of them is believable for a second as a prewar expatriate eccentric. It is clear that neither actress knows where she is.

Zeffirelli's other mistake is his failure to understand the charm of his initial scenes. After creating a warm and humorous look at British manners abroad, he brings the war to Florence in the form of tanks and stereotypical brutes. He announces the catastrophe by using rock throwers to shatter the windows of the ladies' genteel existence when a distant war would have cast an even deeper shadow over afternoon tea at the UFOs. The rich humor of the comedy of manners is lost. Zeffirelli's cardboard war fractures the movie when it might have been the hovering force that erased the prickly camaraderie of the English creating Florence in their own image.

It isn't often that a movie in good hands goes so obviously wrong. And yet there are still three reasons to see this failed movie: Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 499
Studio : G2 Films
Rating : PG
Running time : 1h57

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