Zeffirelli's Eclectic and Eccentric Expats
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli is widely acknowledged as a director of Shakespearean movies such as "Hamlet", "Romeo and Juliet" and of course "The Taming of the Shrew" but he also directed "Tea With Mussolini" a far more personal movie based on his own autobiography and dramatically embellished by John Mortimer. But if like me you've not read Zeffirelli's autobiography or have no awareness of his childhood do not fear, because "Tea With Mussolini" plays adequately as a drama focussing on a group of mainly English women living in Florence just before and during WWII. Actually it's more than adequate because it's charming, entertaining, a little funny and also beautifully shot.
Florence 1935 and Luca (Baird Wallace) the illegitimate son of an Italian businessman finds himself living with expat Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright - 101 Dalmatians) who along with her eclectic group of friends help to bring Luca up. But when Italy enters the war in 1940 the pleasant life of these expats is thrown into turmoil as they are taken from their homes in Florence to live under guard and they are not alone as when America enters the war wealthy American Elsa (Cher - Mermaids) also finds herself living with these old English ladies.
There are clearly two sides to "Tea With Mussolini" as we get a look at the life of these English expats before the war where they held some sort of say in things and then the second half dealing with the consequences of the political unrest in Italy. And it has to be said that the first half of the movie works the best flowing naturally as we are introduced to all the main characters including the young boy Luca who ends up in the care of these women. And as you may expect from a movie focussing on old English ladies residing in Florence it has that quirky, eccentric nature thanks to a variety of characters from the pompously catty Lady Hester, the eccentrically arty Arabella and the voice of reason Mary amongst others.
But when "Tea With Mussolini" takes us to 1940 and the unrest following Mussolini's decision to enter the war things go a little bit a stray. That flowing nature which made the first half feel so natural is lost as we almost get a series of chapters in the life of the women and Luca, who by now is a teenager. It's still entertaining with many almost comical scenes soaked with some delicious ironic dialogue but it becomes disjointed, maybe intentionally to show the disjointed nature of war. But as such some of these chapters, so to speak, feel almost contrived, manufactured to generate a moment of irony, which in a strange way I don't believe is the case, you get a sense that these elements all happened in one form or another it's just they don't come across as completely natural.
But despite this disjointed second half "Tea With Mussolini" is still a wonderfully entertaining movie which documents an interesting period in Italian history through the eyes of these ladies and young Luca. And talking of Luca it also has a feeling of a coming of age story as we watch him become a young man working with what I presume is the resistance and also having feelings for one of the ladies in his life, in particular Elsa the American performer who is disliked by Lady Hester. It's a blend of storylines which works because it gives it different levels of interest and amusement, merging this almost coming of age tale with the troubled times of these expats.
And of course being based in Italy and in particular Florence it is a visual treat. From the opening scenes through the bustling streets where one by one we get to meet the various characters through to the interiors of various buildings it never fails to impress. And what is impressive is that considering "Tea With Mussolini" was made towards the end of the 90s the locations look as authentic as ever transporting you back to a time just before the war.
It has to be said that the casting of all the main characters is an absolute master stroke. Maggie Smith is just brilliant as the pompous and ever so slightly catty Lady Hester Random whilst Judi Dench is just as good as the eccentric and arty Arabella. Lily Tomlin is amusing as the tomboyish Georgie Rockwell and Joan Plowright is glorious as the motherly voice of reason Mary Wallace. But whilst these stunning actresses deliver a brilliant and eclectic group of characters there are two very good performances which stand out from the crowd.
Baird Wallace who plays the teenage version of Luca brings the character to life especially when things focus on the coming of age side of things and his feelings towards Elsa. And talking of Elsa, Cher shows what a stunning actress she is playing the brash American brilliantly yet getting into the emotion of this woman who ends up fearing for her life as America enters the war.
What this all boils down to is that "Tea With Mussolini" is a very good movie which manages to combine the drama of expats living in Florence before and during WWII with a coming of age story. But where it works best is in it quirkiness, the eclectic bunch of characters who deliver such ironic dialogue and the wonderful cinematography which really captures the beauty of Florence and Italy in general.