"Tea With Mussolini"
A Film Review by Linda Lopez McAlister
on "The Women's Show"
WMNF-FM 88.5, Tampa, FL
May 15, 1999

There's a new film that opened this week in Tampa that's great fun, has a terrific cast that includes three Oscar winners and a host of nominees, beautiful scenery, is superbly directed and edited and will make you both laugh and cry. If you like films with little old English ladies in them such as "The Summerhouse" and "Enchanted April" this will be just your cuppa tea.

What is this film? It has the unlikely title of "Tea with Mussolini." It stars Cher, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Densch, and Lily Tomlin, was written by veteran screenwriter John Mortimer, and directed by the wonderfully gifted Italian director Franco Zefferelli. What a cast! What an ensemble of cinematic talent! To top it all off, the story is based on director Zeferelli's own life as a boy and young man growing up in Florence in the 1930s and '40s.

Anyone who has ever visited Florence knows that the British have been enamored of that gorgeous city for at least a couple of hundred years. "Tea with Mussolini" opens at a memorial ceremony that a group of expatriot British ladies are having in 1935 to honor the memory of Elizabeth Barrett Browning who is buried there. This community is led by Lady Hester (Maggie Smith) who is the widow of the late British Ambassador to Rome. She is insufferably conservative and opinionated as she lords it over the less grand ladies of the community. Among them is Mary Wallace (Plowright), a spinster who earns her living typing letters in English for an Italian businessman, and Arabella (Densch), the artist of the group who spends her days, accompanied by her beloved dog, copying paintings in the Uffizi Gallery (where the other ladies come at 4:00 p.m. each afternoon for tea). Near Lady Hester's villa in the hills outside of Florence is an archeological dig led by an American archeologist known to all and sundry as Georgie (Lily Tomlin), an unabashed lesbian who is the object of much disdain and disapproval from Lady Hester. Finally, there rolls into town one day a dazzling sight: a chauffered black and white Jaguar convertable bearing a woman in a striking outfit that matches her car. She's a flamboyant former Ziegfield Follies showgirl who married a rich man and became an art collector. Her name is Elsa and she's, of course, played perfectly by Cher. She has been in Paris but has come back to Florence to have some clothes made by her favorite dressmaker and to visit her friend Georgie.

The thing that first draws these Americans together with the British ladies who look down their noses at them is a little boy, Lucca, the Franco Zefferelli character. He's the illegitimate son of the businessman Mary works for and the dressmaker Elsa has come back to see. Unfortunately Lucca's mother has died and his father has let him go to an orphanage rather than take him in and upset his wife. When he runs away, Mary takes Lucca in and agrees to care for him and turn him into "a perfect English gentleman." And Elsa sets up a trust fund to ensure his future.

As the Facists become more intolerant of foreigners and Jews, many people abandon Florence and go back home before the war spreads to Italy. Lady Hester, however, is a staunch supporter of the government and of Mussolini. When the ladies' favorite restaurant is attacked by the black shirts she is certain Mussolini is unaware of it so she does what she thinks her late husband would have done: she goes to Rome to meet with Mussolini and secure his personal promise that the British community in Florence will be protected. He serves her tea and makes that promise, one he, of course, has no intention of keeping, but it makes good press. Once Italy declares war on Britain in 1940, however, the ladies, as enemy aliens, are hauled off to be incarcerated in an abandoned school in the ancient Tuscan town of San Gimigiano. The Americans are not yet in the war, so the ever impulsive and generous Elsa pays to have them transfered to the more comfortable quarters of a hotel, letting Lady Hester and the others believe that they are the guests of Il Duce himself.

As the war goes on and the Americans, too, become enemy aliens, Lucca works with the underground and eventually is in the position of helping the Jewish Elsa , who has been betrayed by her Italiian lover, escape. But not before she and Lady Hester find common ground--they've both been deluded by men who turned out to have betrayed them. Elsa her lover and Lady H., Mussolini.

At the end of the film, titles tell us what happened to each of the main characters after the war. The last one is Lucca. For him it says that he "became an artist and helped make this film."

You'll have to go all the way to the new Citrus Park Mall to do it, but please do yourself a favor and drop by for Tea with Mussolini some day this week.

For the WMNF Women's Show, this is Linda Lopez McAlister on Women and Film.

Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce this review without permission of the author: mcalister@chuma1.cas.usf.edu

Posted 5/24/99