Much tea is consumed but little sympathy evoked in Franco Zeffirelli's semiautobiographical character piece, which centers on a group of English and American eccentrics in northern Italy during the rise of Fascism and WWII.

Much tea is consumed but little sympathy evoked in Franco Zeffirelli’s semiautobiographical character piece, which centers on a group of English and American eccentrics in northern Italy during the rise of Fascism and WWII. Some fine individual perfs by the tony cast, plus fine period detail and costumes, make the time pass fairly agreeably, but “Tea With Mussolini” suffers from a fatal lack of focus and emotional center, reducing potentially involving material to a succession of individual scenes. Box office looks to be decent at best, at any rate an improvement on Zeffirelli’s earning power this past decade or so.

As he showed in his last pic, the underrated “Jane Eyre” (1996), Zeffirelli can still come up with the dramatic goods when he has a strong cast and a script with a backbone. In “Mussolini,” he has the former in spades, but he and co-writer John Mortimer fail to transform the broad parameters of helmer’s childhood into a thoroughgoing slice of drama. Where Zeffirelli’s alter ego, here called Luca, should provide emotional continuity and a sense of perspective on the bizarre community, he becomes little more than a bystander as the various distaff leads walk in and out of the spotlight.

Spanning 10 years, story starts in Florence in 1935, when cultured Brits’ love affair with Italy was still on a roll and “Mussolini was just a man who made the trains run on time.” Luca (Charlie Lucas) is a young local kid whose mother has run away and whose stern father, a fabric importer, is more than happy when he’s taken in by Mary (Joan Plowright), an Englishwoman who lives at the aptly named Pensione Shelley.

Mary and her circle of Brits of a certain age — dubbed “the scorpions” for their tart wit and snobbish manners — rally ’round to take care of Luca. Chief among them are the snooty Lady Hester (Maggie Smith) and arty, dog-loving Arabella (Judi Dench), who prances around uttering phrases like “I’ve drunk deep the wine of Firenze.” Mostly centered on Plowright and Dench’s characters, pic’s first two reels are genuinely likable, with a rich array of personalities intro’d and the warm, string-and-piano score drawing the viewer into their world.

With the entrance of Cher, as rich American collector Elsa on a swing through Italy (“where all the bargains are now”), the film agreeably broadens beyond just a portrait of English eccentrics, with Lily Tomlin adding some twinkle-eyed humor as Georgie, an easygoing lesbian who lives nearby. At the same time, however, the script’s episodic structure starts to become apparent, with Plowright and Dench largely fading into the background and Smith’s aristocrat moving to centerstage, initially dispensing anti-American witticisms and then leading a personal delegation to meet with Mussolini. She wants Benito’s personal assurance that they are in no personal danger from rampaging Fascist gangs.

After that set piece, with Claudio Spadaro as a creepily polite Il Duce, the film really starts to jump the rails. Luca, in danger of becoming steeped in English manners, is sent to Austria for a “German education,” and the first in a series of tacky date captions flash across the screen like an old-style newsreel as we leap forward to 1940, the war, and the women’s disillusionment with Mussolini.

In short order, there follows the expats’ internment in the beautiful hilltop town of San Gimignano, Luca’s return as a handsome teen (Baird Wallace) and a manufactured climax as the Jewish Elsa is smuggled out of the country. Tacked-on ending, which goes at least a reel too far, tries to restore the opening comic tone. With Smith basically phoning in her patented performance, and Cher good but emotionally remote as the gold-digging Elsa, the real acting honors go to Plowright, nicely restrained as the essentially lonely Mary, and Tomlin, equally subtle as the relaxed but observant Georgie. Both bring a measure of continuity to the shapeless drama, though it’s not enough to make the whole confection work. Cast as a dotty old dame, Dench gets few opportunities, and often seems to be in a different movie. Wallace is vanilla as the grown Luca.

Though costume design is excellent, with a lived-in look, the $14 million production has a fiscally prudent feel overall, not helped by David Watkin’s untextured lensing, which is often flat and sometimes plain unattractive. This absence of visual elan is nothing new for Zeffirelli, hardly the most elegant of directors, but is far more noticeable here than in, say, “Jane Eyre” (also shot by Watkin), where at least the heart and mind were fully engaged. Italian-British co-production was largely backed by Medusa Film, part of the media empire of Silvio Berlusconi, whose political party Zeffirelli has represented for several years.

Tea With Mussolini

Italian-British

Production

A UIP (in U.K.)/MGM (in U.S.) release of a Medusa Film/Universal Pictures presentation of a Medusa Film, Cattleya, Cineritmo (Rome)/Film & General Prods. (London) production. Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni, Clive Parsons. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Screenplay, John Mortimer, Zeffirelli, based on "The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli."

Crew

Camera (Cinecitta color), David Watkin; editor, Tariq Anwar; music, Alessio Vlad, Stefano Arnaldi; art directors, Carlo Centolavigna, Gioia Fiorella Mariani; costume designers, Jenny Beavan, Alberto Spiazzi, Anna Anni; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Stereo), Brian Simmons; associate producer, Pippo Pisciotto; assistant directors, Pisciotto, Roberto Tatti; casting, Emma Style. Reviewed at Plaza 1, London, March 5, 1999. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Elsa - Cher Arabella - Judi Dench Mary - Joan Plowright Hester - Maggie Smith Georgie - Lily Tomlin Luca (teenager) - Baird Wallace Luca (child) - Charlie Lucas Paolo - Massimo Ghini Vittorio - Paolo Seganti Wilfred - Paul Checquer Connie - Tessa Pritchard Cesare - Mino Bellei Mussolini - Claudio Spadaro

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