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*** Stars
(US 1999) Rated PG-13

Cher, Judi Densch, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Lily Tomlin

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Writing credits: John Mortimer

MGM * 116 minutes

My name is Jill Cozzi, and I like Cher. I mean, I really like Cher. I can't stand her as a singer, but she happens to be a terrific actress, and who can resist her "F--- you!" attitude? In TEA WITH MUSSOLINI, the combination of Cher, Dame Judi Densch, Maggie Smith, and Joan Plowright, is just too delicious to ignore.

Based on a chapter from director Franco Zeffirelli's autobiography and scripted by Zeffirelli along with playwright John Mortimer. scorpioni.jpg - 18024 BytesTEA is the recollections of Luca Innocenti, born out of wedlock to a French designer and supported, though not recognized, by his Italian father. Running away from the orphanage at which he is housed, he is taken in by Mary (Joan Plowright), who enlists the help of her fellow "Scorpioni" (a group of British expatriate women living in Florence to immerse themselves in art and culture) in raising him to share their interests.

Mary teaches young Luca (Charlie Lucas) about Shakespeare by enacting Romeo and Juliet with him in a diorama on her dining room table after feeding him bacon and eggs. The flighty Arabella (Judi Densch, in fabulous bohemian caftans and carrying the obligatory Jack Russell Terrier) takes him to sculpture galleries. Meanwhile, the incredibly British Hester (Maggie Smith at her Maggie Smith best) reminds everyone and anyone that her husband was the British Ambassador, using this connection to have, you guessed it, tea with Mussolini. Il Duce assures her that she and the other Scorpioni have nothing to fear from him, a promise she takes far too much to heart, reminding anyone who will listen, that she has had tea with Mussolini -- and has the photograph to prove it.

Into the midst of all this British propriety, and entering in an appropriately grand style, is Cher, as Elsa, an American Jewish woman who appears to have made a career out of collecting rich elsaluca.jpg - 16220 Byteshusbands -- and fine art. (TITANIC blooperists note: the Picasso painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon appears in this film as well. Will someone please let me know if this painting was, in fact, in a private collection in Florence at that time?) Lily Tomlin also appears as Georgie, apparently an archaeologist, whose sole purpose in the film seems to be an open lesbian.

As Italy declares war on England and France, the Scorpioni find themselves as prisoners of war, holed up in an abandoned medieval building, until a mysterious benefactor rescues them and boards them at a hotel for the duration of the war, while they restore medieval frescoes to pass the time. Young Luca, now grown up (and played by Baird Wallace), becomes infatuated with Elsa, and helps her machinate the escape of other Jews from Italy.

Beautiful scenery is Franco Zeffirelli's stock in trade, and this film displays Florence beautifully. Every museum, every building, every piece of sculpture is caressed by the camera, so that the viewer easily sees why these women brave war to stay there. A few glaring anachronisms, such as costumer Anna Anni's hats (which would be more at home in 1922 than in 1932) and some sloppy editing, particularly in a scene involving a motorcycle and a sidecar, are momentary distractions.

TEA WITH MUSSOLINI doesn't have much of a story. It's never clear whether this is a comedy with dramatic moments or a drama with comic relief, so that often, the laugh moments seem out of place. The boy Luca is not sufficiently compelling to carry a picture, for all that he is its raison d'etre (and young Baird Wallace, while very cute in a teen idol sort of way, is not an actor on a par with his young counterpart Charlie Lucas), and the other women, save Mary, are caricatures.

However, the performances are so rich and so rewarding, that the broad brush with which these biddies are painted is easily forgotten, despite the fact that with the exception of Judi Densch, we have seen these actresses tread on this ground before. joanmag.jpg - 10797 BytesMaggie Smith's stiff upper lip is incomparable: "Those Americans...they can even make ice cream vulgar." Joan Plowright as Mary, has played this sort of stern-but-warm maternal character before in works as diverse as AVALON and I LOVE YOU TO DEATH -- but here, she is particularly affecting and admirably subtle. Judi Densch's Arabella is reminiscent of the sort of character densch.jpg - 13339 BytesGeraldine Fitzgerald used to portray -- an aging bohemian beauty, all flowing gray hair and exotic caftans. Lily Tomlin comes as close to coming out as she's likely to, though one has to wonder why this character even exists. As for Cher, well, she's Cher. When asked by a young, impetuous, obviously-smitten, and improbably handsome young Italian man, "Are all American women as exciting as you?" she takes a drag from her overly long cigarette lighter, turns away from him coyly (that this bit works in a woman of fifty-something is amazing), and says, definitively, "No."

And she's right.


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