Zounds! Cher Goes Herbal
TEA WITH MUSSOLINI Directed by Franco Zeffirelli Starring Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright MGM
As popular culture spins through the galaxy of history to recreate and redefine its past, the celebration of World War II in film returned with a vengeance in 1998. Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful reexamined the war with varying degrees of success from new perspectives, and both won Oscars.
Franco Zeffirelli casts his new movie, Tea with Mussolini, in a different key. Based on a memoir of his experiences growing up in Italy, Tea with Mussolini tells the story of an eccentric group of British and American women living in Florence during the '30s and '40s.
Zeffirelli's story is a less ambitious commentary on the war than either Spielberg or Benigni's films. He spares the audience a graphic depiction of the horrors of war and avoids moralistic themes to present a personal account of the amusements and petty squabbles of a small group of foreigners on the Italian homefront.
Zeffirelli gives a funny and poignant account of the influence of three women on Luca Innocenti, a boy whose mother has died and father has handed over to the care of an elderly British woman, Mary Wallace. Mary, played by Joan Plowright, forges a close bond with Luca. She teaches him how to be a perfect English gentleman and shares with him the loss of her father and fiance in World War I.
Judi Dench, who recently won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, takes on a very different but equally convincing role here. She plays Arabella, a sentimental amateur artist who cries while reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Arabella introduces Luca to the beauty of Florentine sculpture and paves the way for his later interest in art.
Cher plays the leading role of Elsa, a wealthy American art collector whose ostentatious manner brings her into repeated conflict with Lady Hester (Maggie Smith), a paragon of English propriety. Cher endows with humor and depth her portrayal of Elsa's extravagance, selfless generosity, and naive trust.
But the war intrudes into this wartime idyll. Elsa is Jewish. She is the anonymous philanthropist who puts money in a trust for Luca, delivers passports with his help to a Jewish woman, and, after the war breaks out, pays to move her English acquaintances from a dingy barracks to a hotel. Lady Hester assumes that Mussolini, with whom she once had tea, is the one who is paying for their stay at the hotel.
At the same time, Elsa manages to fall in love and she signs her property over to her lover. Without betraying the twists of plot that make this film such a pleasure to watch, I only mention in passing that her lover plans to give her up to the Gestapo so he can walk away with her fortune scot free. Her ultimate fate--and the resolution of the film--lies in the hands of the Englishwomen for whom she is both benefactor and object of snobbery.
Tea with Mussolini strikes a balance between the humor and emotional acuity in the setting of a coming-of-age movie, in this case the coming of age of Luca. The film engages the audience's sympathy without being mawkish. Unlike Zeffirelli's immensely popular 1961 production of Romeo and Juliet, Tea with Mussolini does not pander to a specific audience. It manages to convey the struggles and foibles of its characters with economy of sentiment and love.