`Tea' is warm cup of sunny Italy's pre-war history

Review: Brimming with Zeffirelli, `Tea with Mussolini' drips with style and summer scenery that is refreshing to the last drop.

May 14, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Tea With Mussolini" exudes the ineffable perfume of memory, redolent of sensory cues and ephemeral moments. Luckily for filmgoers, the memory in question belongs to Franco Zeffirelli, who adapted this film from his own memoirs with the novelist John Mortimer.

The story begins in 1935 in Florence, Italy. Benito Mussolini has been in power for 13 years, and at the moment, as a subtitle tells us, "the sun is still shining on the square and statues, and the dictator Mussolini is the gentleman who makes the trains run on time."

A group of English and American expatriate women are living in Florence, making up a colorful and romantic hodgepodge of characters: Arabella (Judi Dench) restores frescoes and swoons over the statuary in the Uffizi; Georgie (Lily Tomlin), an archaeologist, plies her dusty trade on Florence's outskirts; and Elsa (Cher), a former Ziegfeld dancer living a life of serial and increasingly remunerative marriages, wafts in and out in a cloud of Schiaperelli. Meanwhile the good and doting Mary (Joan Plowright) has taken custody of Zeffirelli's alter-ego, Luca (played as a child by Charlie Lucas and as a teen-ager by Baird Wallace), whose mother has died and who has been abandoned by his father.

Overseeing the brood with a gimlet eye is Lady Hester (Maggie Smith), who is convinced that Mussolini is a terribly decent fellow -- and certainly better behaved than the American riffraff that keeps invading her territory.

Filmed on location in Tuscany and Rome, "Tea with Mussolini" drips with the kind of scenery and style that makes the perfect early summer movie, made all the more so by Zeffirelli's fabulous sense of design and an equally fabulous cast.

The two Lucas are especially commendable, and Maggie Smith delivers a wonderfully beaky performance, delivering her nearly constant commentary in withering whispers ("Americans simply don't understand picnics"). And brava to Cher for once again giving the lie to something someone said about second acts and American lives.

The real star of "Tea with Mussolini," though, is Zeffirelli himself, whose honesty and deep love for this lovable gaggle of Auntie Mames suffuse this tender memento to its last, delicate drop.

`Tea with Mussolini'

Starring Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Rated PG (thematic elements, language, brief nudity and some mild violence)

Running time 116 minutes

Released by G2 Films

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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