Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea With Mussolini (1999) is a somewhat maudlin melodrama derived from Zeffirelli’s own life experiences as a boy growing up during the Second World War in Fascist Italy. An occasionally moving homage to the last days of polite association between ‘the Scorpioni’ – English women who descended on Florence with sublime misguided thoughts of absorbing its’ art and culture – and the local color, Zeffirelli’s tribute begins in earnest with a quandary over illegitimate child, Luca (Charlie Lucas as a child, Baird Wallace as a young man).
After running away from the Italian orphanage, Luca is taken in by Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) and her cloistered gaggle of friends led by cockeyed artist, Arabella (Judi Dench) and butch excavator/archivist, Georgie Rockwell (Lily Tomlin). Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith) frowns upon the association.
It is one thing to have a child, Hester reasons, and quite another to assume someone else’s responsibility to look after the welfare of one. Then again, Hester’s undying attachment to her late husband’s memory and all-consuming belief that Italy’s dictator (Claudio Spadaro) will honor that association, does seem to muddle her otherwise clear – if pompous - thinking.
Enter austentacious American collector, Elsa Morganthal Strauss-Armistan (Cher), whose affinity for Luca’s late mother leads her to set up a trust fund that will help look after the boy as he grows into maturity and adulthood. For a time, this eclectic bunch does live in a sort of suspended pastoral bliss – but one that is doomed to destruction with the onset of WWII.
Zeffirelli’s filmic prowess seems a tad stifled and uninspired on this outing. It is as though he required another hour of running time to properly unravel the tale, but was instead instructed into an enless montage of briefly engaging vignettes that embody much of the middle and final act of his film.
What Zeffirelli relies quite heavily on is not so much a development of narrative, but the audiences’ embracement of the actresses in their ensemble roles to propel the story onward. At least in terms of casting, Zeffirelli is most blessed. The ladies are an eclectic bunch of fascinating character studies; Cher and Maggie Smith the most fascinating and engaging; Plowright and Tomlin holding their own with what little they’ve been given to do. Baird Wallace makes a success of Luca, though he remains the only male character in the film to be delineated in anything beyond cardboard cutout. Tea With Mussolini is an interesting experiment, but one not entirely realized in the end.
MGM’s DVD is disappointing. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits an overly soft characteristic with artifical sharpening, resulting in a considerable amount of edge enhancement. Contrast levels appear slightly lower than expected. Colors are muted to reflect a sort of sepia postcard look, but on the whole adequately represented. Flesh tones are a tad on the pasty pink side. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and adequately represented for what is, primarily, a dialogue driven narrative. There are NO extras!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)