movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


(© 1999 MGM Studios. All rights reserved.)

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Tea With Mussolini

"It was cloudy in Italy, which surprised them. They had expected sunshine. But it was Italy. Nothing it did could be bad."

--Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April

England has long enjoyed a literary love affair with Italy. Think of themes of English etiquette contrasted with Italian heat. Sweet maidens named Lucy taking dark-skinned lovers, swapping old social constraints into a marriage of the self. The same is true for post-war British cinema, which borrowed from Italian neorealism and modeled its radical stylistic techniques after the French New Wave. During World War II, most British directors had opted for armchair narrative adaptations--lavish Technicolor productions heavy on atmosphere. After the war, the Free Cinema movement (1955), lead by Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, celebrated "the importance of the individual and . . . the significance of the everyday." A film should be a medium of personal expression, "socially committed to illuminating the problems of contemporary life."

Like Italian neorealism, from which it was born, British social realist cinema occupied itself with sex, class, and power in the post-industrial world. Today's British cinema has dissolved from this movement, but elements of it remain in works as seemingly diverse as those by Mike Leigh and Merchant-Ivory. Although the latter has earned a stuffy reputation for translating E.M. Forester novels into detail-driven melodramas, the neorealist concerns (class politics and gender relations) still prevail under all that button-down propriety. Merchant-Ivory attacks contemporary problems under the pretty guise of "costume picture." Take away the social context and you have "Merchant-Ivory lite"--just another overwrought period film with lots of scenery.

This is Franco Zeffirelli's fault in Tea With Mussolini, which is supposedly based on his autobiography. Set in Florence of the early 1930s, it tells the story of Luca (aka Franco), a little bastard boy taken in by the "Scorpioni," a scathing group of British expatriates pursuing artistic interests in Italy. Lady Hester (Maggie Smith, playing the same breed of uppity matron that she played in A Room With A View) leads the dames as widow of the former British ambassador. She poses for a photo opportunity with Musso, inciting the Brown Shirts to break into the ladies' tea room and send them scurrying into the mountains. Arabella (Judi Dench) loves terriers and Italian frescos and spends time rescuing both. The token lesbian is Georgie (Lily Tomlin), an archeologist ditched in overalls. In case we have any questions concerning her sexual orientation, the movie has her dancing with ladies, dropping double-entendres, and not doing much of anything. Mary (Joan Plowright) is a typist and Luca's caretaker. Cher plays Elsa Morgenthal (apparently modeled after Peggy Guggenheim), a brash American art collector whose absent hubby is "too cheap to slip a poor girl a little Picasso."

Together, these enormous personalities eclipse boring little Luca, who, like a soap opera brat, no longer needed by the plotline, disappears to boarding school and returns a decade older (though nobody else has aged except Cher, who somehow looks younger). The film would be better off eliminating Luca or narrowing its focus through his perspective. These are supposed to be the director's boyhood memories. Perhaps that's the problem. If Zeffirelli feels constrained to paint in shades of rose, he hasn't done his duty as a storyteller.

The movie resembles a memoir in its undramatic string of contrived events. A lot happens within the space of two hours. Most of it defies explanation. Would two antagonists (Elsa, the brazen American, and Hester, the prudish Brit) bury the hatchet for the sake of a happy ending? Why would Elsa, a Jewish woman, kick up her heels in war-torn Italy? What happens to Lady Hester's grandson, who dodges the draft by dressing in drag and, for no apparent reason, suddenly bursts into the street, hollering, "I'm a man!" And how did Arabella's dog make that incredible journey to the mountaintop? Alas, these questions remain unanswered. It's a waste of a terrific cast (who manage to make lasting impressions despite lack of depth) not to mention an ideal setting. Simply aim a camera at Italy and you've got another character, more complex than the others.

Cinematographer David Watkin makes the craggy landscape resemble a sleeping giant, the architecture spearing the mist like castles on a cloud. How could the English light-loving Zeffirelli (renowned for one of the truest cinematic adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, as well as Mel Gibson's Hamlet and Elizabeth Taylor's Taming of the Shrew) fail to represent the bond between his country and the British (literary and cinematic) heritage he so admires? Better ask the Scorpioni, who taught him to read and write, but not remember.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]