Tea with Mussolini
- Cher as Elsa Morganthal
- Joan Plowright as Mary Wallace
- Judi Dench as Arabella
- Maggie Smith as Lady Hester Random
- Lily Tomlin as Georgie Rockwell
- Baird Wallace as Teenage Luca
- Charlie Lucas as Young Luca
Franco Zeffirelli draws upon incidents from his own childhood for this semi-autobiographical, coming of age tale of a young boy whose life is influenced by many different women as Italy heads for political change and the impending knowledge of World War II. Funny, warm and boasting an array of fine performances from the talented cast, Tea with Mussolini is charming viewing from start to finish.
The film begins in 1935, Florence. Luca is a young illegitimate child whose mother has died and whose father shows little care for his upbringing. Luckily for him, his father’s secretary, the kind Mary Wallace decides to take the boy into her care. She is part of an expatriate sisterhood known as “The Scorpioni”, which consists of Englishwomen and two Americans. Populating the electic group are Arabella, the spirited art loving bohemian; Lady Hester, a rude and haughty matron who because of her late husbands political connections is a strong believer in Mussolini; Elsa, an outrageous American widow who loves to spend and Georgie, a witty and openly lesbian archaeologist. It is through this gaggle of women that Luca learns many valuable lessons about life as he grows up. But as the country heads for Italy’s involvement in the war and political uncertainty, the bond between him and the women remains strong despite the many attempts to break it. So sit back and enjoy this touching coming of age story of Luca as he grows from childhood to teenage years, instilled with the lessons of the inspirational women that surround him.
Although some of the events in the film feel a little over the top and episodic, this should not detract from the overall freshness of the story as performed by the exceptional cast. The screenplay excellently alternates between dry humour and moments of touching sincerity with deft skill. The use of authentic Italian locations is stunningly realised and shot almost like a Merchant-Ivory picture, capturing the lush beauty but also the eventual turmoil that will occur. Charlie Lucas and Baird Wallace shine as Luca at different ages, showing his emergence from wide-eyed boy to cultured young gentleman. Yet it the female cast that lights up Tea with Mussolini, creating a lively group of eccentric but caring ladies. In a role that seems tailor-made for her, Cher delivers an exciting, sensational and heartfelt performance as the extravagant Elsa, who loves to shake things up, but behind the glamour has a caring streak that becomes most apparent when it comes to Luca. Joan Plowright provides a warm but firm presence as Luca’s surrogate mother figure, her eyes filled with love and care for the boy. She also conveys a sagacious strength when situations get tough and has a quiet but disarming wit. Maggie Smith, that great dame, turns in a typically acerbic performance as the haughty and high-class Hester, blinded by her own naive tendencies. Smith has a hoot delivering the best lines consisting of withering insults and warm responses in equal abundance. That other grand dame of cinema Judi Dench adds eccentric mannerisms and bohemian freedom as the passionate Arabella, showing us her cultured sensibilities with her many recitals of classic poetry and literature. Rounding out this ensemble is Lily Tomlin who adds an arch humour and touching quality as the free-living Georgie, who isn’t afraid to voice her opinion. The film may be set during the war but don’t expect a history lesson, as the main focus is on the effects it has rather than the fighting. Franco Zeffirelli directs with a light comic air that also contains many moments of poignancy arising from Luca’s unbreakable connection with the gaggle of women who have changed his life.
Featuring a brilliant cast, stunning sets and excellent dialogue laced with humour and warmth to spare, Tea with Mussolini is simply a joy. Believe me, the cast enough is reason to see the semi-autobiographical delight from Franco Zeffirelli.