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The Dames Are Grande in Franco Zeffirelli's Cozy 'Tea With Mussolini'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 1999

  Movie Critic

'Tea With Mussolini'
Franco Zeffirelli directs an esemble cast of women in "Tea With Mussolini." (MGM)

Franco Zeffirelli
Charlie Lucas;
Joan Plowright;
Maggie Smith;
Claudio Spadaro;
Lily Tomlin;
Baird Wallace
Judi Dench
Running Time:
1 hour, 46 minutes
Light profanity and a briefly glimpsed derriere
Director Franco Zeffirelli weighs in on World War II Italy in "Tea With Mussolini," a whimsical adventure drawn from his childhood memories of Florence in the '30s. Though the semi-autobiography touches on the filmmaker's coming of age, it's primarily a loving celebration of the colorful Englishwomen who introduced him to artistry as a young man.

Known as the Scorpioni for their stinging wit, the elderly ladies have a soft spot in their hearts for Zeffirelli's fictional counterpart, Luca Innocenti (Charlie Lucas). A motherless bastard who is cast off by his father, Luca is quickly adopted by Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) and soon embraced by her delightful fellow expatriates (Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) and their brassy American rivals (Cher and Lily Tomlin). Cher's flamboyant actress, with a collection of modern art and Italian men, and Tomlin's openly gay archaeologist are favorite targets of autocratic Lady Hester Random (Smith), who never misses a chance to mention her late husband, the British ambassador.

As hostilities between Italy and Britain increase, Lady Hester shares the beverage of the title with Il Duce, who sends her away with his personal guarantee of safety. Her friends are unable to disabuse her of this fantasy. Though obtuse to a fault, Lady Hester also proves formidable.

In the chapters that follow, the seemingly fragile crumpet-eaters battle fascism armed with little more than flimsy parasols, a profound sense of entitlement and a little help from Luca and the Americans. When Mussolini declares war on Britain, the ladies are declared enemy aliens and asked to leave, but there's simply no budging these biddies.

They're in love with Italy, and clearly Zeffirelli is still in love with them. Though ostensibly a coming-of-age memoir, "Tea With Mussolini" is really about the first women in the Italian director's life. It's drawn from a single chapter of his book but suffers from a lack of focus. None of these great ladies is willing to give up center stage; nor, for that matter, are the grande dames who bring them so vividly to life.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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