Lansbury to sip ‘Tea’ in Zeffirelli pic for Medusa

ROME — Playing colorful British ex-patriates in Tuscany in the period leading up to and during World War II, Angela Lansbury, Joan Plowright and Vanessa Redgrave will star in Franco Zeffirelli’s next film, “Tea With Mussolini,” based on an episode from the Italian director’s childhood.

Backed by Medusa Film, which will distribute in Italy and handle international sales, the $12 million feature will be the maiden production from Italian TV veteran Riccardo Tozzi’s new company, Cattleya Film, which is aiming to focus on films for the international market.

Scripted by renowned British playwright, novelist and screenwriter John Mortimer from an excerpt taken from Zeffirelli’s autobiography, the story is a bittersweet comedy set against the somber political climate of fascism and anti-Semitism. The action takes place from 1936-44.

It recounts the director’s life between the ages of 8 and 16, when he was left by his father in the care of three eccentric British women and a fortysomething, frequently widowed, Jewish American millionairess. Casting of the latter role is still being negotiated.

Shooting is due to start in September in Florence and the medieval Tuscan town of San Gimignano. A lineup of major-name Italian technical collaborators is currently being assembled.

The film is the second high-profile, English-language production to be announced for Medusa in recent months, following Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean,” which was picked up worldwide, excluding Italy, by New Line Intl. during Cannes, with Fine Line to distribute in the U.S. Similarly hefty pre-sales also are expected for the Zeffirelli pic.

Producer Tozzi has been head of production at Fininvest TV division Mediaset for the past 12 years. Prior to that, he worked for RAI and the pubcaster’s sales arm, Sacis, for an additional 12 years, during which he was involved in many international co-productions. In addition to “Tea With Mussolini,” Cattleya’s first-year slate also includes Liliana Cavani’s “Dissociated States,” a Canadian-Italian-French co-production with Montreal-based Filmline Intl. and Les Films de l’Astre of Paris. Cavani (“The Night Porter”) and Gianni Romoli scripted from the novel by U.S. author Leonard Simon. Budget reportedly is around $11 million but could go higher, depending on the cast.

Also at an advanced stage of preproduction is “A Pale Blue Ink, A Woman’s Hand,” from Cristina Comencini, who directed the 1995 domestic hit “Follow Your Heart.” The new pic is based on a novel by Austrian writer Franz Werfel. All three of Cattleya’s debut features will be made in English.

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