Rated PG - Running Time: 1:56 - Released 5/14/99

A year ago, Roberto Benigni was the talk of Hollywood and the world with his award winning Italian film La Vita è Bella, or Life Is Beautiful. Now, like Benigni, director Franco Zeffirelli has released a quasi-autobiographical film set in the same time and place, about the same subject: the growing Fascist movement in Italy in the 1930s, which eventually led to that nation's alliance with Hitler's Germany. Tea With Mussolini is a beautiful film with numerous excellent performances. Like Benigni's masterpiece, it is tinged with humor even though it covers a dark and tragic subject. But unlike La Vita, which focused mainly on one family's experiences, this film follows several plot lines interwoven together. Its attempt to tell three separate yet interrelated stories is ambitious, and the result is a touch overcomplicated.

One story is about a boy named Luca (played at first by Charlie Lucas), who is orphaned after the death of his mother and the abandonment and remarriage of his deadbeat dad. Luca is adopted by his father's secretary, a British woman named Mary (Joan Plowright). She attempts to teach him right from wrong, and he grows into an admirable young man. But as tensions grow between Italy and the Allies, Luca's father decides the English way is not for him. He sends Luca off to Austria to be introduced to the Fascist ideology. However, when Luca returns (played as a teenager by Baird Wallace), he has not lost his love for Mary, and he shows this despite the fact that she has become his country's enemy.

The second story is about the ladies of the British consulate, who are respected members of the community until Italy declares war on England. Suddenly these extremely proper ladies (of which Mary is one) are considered enemy aliens and imprisoned by the government. The most dowdy member of the group is Hester (Maggie Smith), the widow of Mussolini's former ambassador to England. She is Il Duce's biggest fan, and even secures a meeting with him where they have tea and he assures her that no harm will come to her or her friends. Though Hester's faith in the dictator survives far beyond everyone else's, she eventually comes to realize her tea with him was nothing but a placation.

Finally, there is the story of a wealthy American woman named Elsa (Cher), a perfect example of "nouveau riche," who is despised by Hester and many of the other proper British ladies. Elsa is flamboyant, loud, and garish, all of which spells vulgarity to Hester. But she is also good-natured and full of spirit, and she dearly loves Luca, since his deceased mother was her best friend. Like Hester, she soon finds herself the enemy, and is undone by an Italian man in whom she had placed her trust. Also present is Lily Tomlin as Elsa's sister Georgie, a brash lesbian grudgingly tolerated among the stuffy British women, and Judi Dench as Hester's eccentric friend Arabella, whose love for art and animals almost gets her killed on several occasions.

With such a talented cast, this film could hardly go wrong. It is rich with beautiful performances by dames Smith, Dench, and Plowright, as well as Cher in one of her best works to date. Zeffirelli, director of such films as Jane Eyre and the TV miniseries Jesus Of Nazareth, based the film on his own story, with writing help by John Mortimer. The only trouble is, he wants to cram too much information into his story, resulting in a film that is disjointed instead of dovetailed. Pacing problems make it seem longer than it really is, but the good performances and beautiful Italian settings (and artworks) are its saving graces. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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