Published May 1, 1999
Tea With Mussolini is, like so many other works by its director and co- writer (with John Mortimer) Franco Zeffirelli, for movie-goers with rather more of a sweet-tooth than I generally find I have. Adapted from Zeffirelli’s autobiography, it tells the story of a small Italian boy called Luca (played as a child by Charlie Lucas and as a teenager by Baird Wallace), the neglected bastard son of a Florentine businessman, who in 1935 is informally adopted by a group of English expatriates — genteel widows and maiden ladies d’un certain age who live in Florence for the art. Or Art. Known locally as the scorpioni on account of their gossipy and imperious ways, the circle is dominated by Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith), relict of the late British ambassador in Rome, who is a great admirer of Mussolini for the “discipline and order” he has brought to Italy. When anti-English sentiment in Italy begins to make itself evident, she naturally appeals directly to Il Duce, who at the eponymous tea party (“Shall I be mother?” says Lady Hester as the teapot is brought out) assures her of “my personal protection.”
Naturally, this guarantee turns out to be meaningless. With the outbreak of the war, the ladies are interned. Luca manages to help them in various ways, mainly for the sake of Miss Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright, who seems way too old to have lost, as we are told she did, her fiancé in the Great War), the kindest of them to him. On the margins of the group are the dashing American adventuress, Elsa (Cher), who has married money several times and pays for the ladies to live in a hotel rather than the barracks where they are first taken, even though they dislike her, and her lesbian friend Georgie (Lily Tomlin). The latter seems to have no function except to help sell the film in the American market. Luca’s father has allowed Miss Mary to attend to his education in the hope that he will become “a perfect English gentleman.” When the beau ideal in Italy becomes German instead of British, it is too late. Luca is already an English gentleman in the making, and his experiences in the war complete the process.
His heartwarming adventures include helping to spirit Elsa, who is Jewish, out of the country when she is robbed, betrayed and abandoned by an Italian lover. In the process there is a predictable rapprochement between Elsa and Lady Hester, who notes that, in spite of the former’s flashy American vulgarity, they have both “trusted men who turned out to be bastards” — in the latter’s case, the bastard is Mussolini. Meanwhile, Luca who started out life as a bastard (more could have been made of the stigma attaching to his status in Italy in the 1930s) manages to attach himself to a company of invading Scottish infantry as a translator. When he appears before Miss Mary in his new uniform, she proudly pronounces that he is: “The perfect English gentleman, just as your father wanted.”
Like a lot of autobiographical movies, this one inspires the thought that too much of the emotion has been generated off-screen and does not quite justify itself for those of us who are just looking on. There are some desultory attempts to make a more serious point about the civilizing effects of art and literature, and the international brotherhood of art-lovers. When Lady Hester is interned as an “enemy alien” she tartly notes on behalf of the others that “We’re not enemies; we’re not aliens either. But the antics of Dame Judi Dench as the dottiest of the scorpioni, attempting to preserve both Florentine frescoes and her annoying little dog from the dogs of war, together with occasional rhapsodizing about “the body beautiful,” only reinforce the general impression of sentimentality. It’s all very well to pay tribute to the Englishness as well as the genius of Shakespeare, but the greatest English-speaking poet of the period, Ezra Pound, was making broadcasts on behalf of Mussolini.