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TEA WITH MUSSOLINI

SYNOPSIS:
Lady Hester (Maggie Smith) the British ambassador's widow, is leader of the so called Scorpioni, expat English ladies like Arabella Delancey (Judi Dench) who loves frescos, her dog, poetry and painting; and Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) who translates for the cloth manufacturer, whose illigitemate son, Luca, she reluctantly takes under her care. Into this group’s Florence comes Elsa Morganthall (Cher), from another world - cabaret. She is fabulously wealthy, having been a Ziegfeld girl, who had the sense to marry rich, old men in the twilight of their gratitude. She comes to Florence, because she loves it and to see her friend, Georgie (Lily Tomlin), an uninhibited lesbian archaeologist. Luca (Charlie Lucas and Baird Wallace) learns and grows even as Italy stumbles behind Mussolini into war. Lady Hester seeks – no, demands - the dictator’s protection.

"I’m in sympathy with Zeffirelli’s approach to autobiography as reflected in this film, at least in as much as if and when I recall my own life for anyone else, I tend to see it as a series of events. The gooey stuff that binds it all messily together with contradictons of characters and uneasy emotions, is strangely absent. So for me, Tea With Mussolini works well as a snapshot of part of someone’s life, as seen through their youthful eyes and imperfect memories. How much do we embellish on our nostalgic recollections as grandchildren, say? In Zeffirelli’s case, it seems that he remembers pre-war Tuscany longingly and lovingly, the eccentric English ladies of his acquaintance sharply and his own emotional life sketchily. And this is really the only shortcoming of the film, a limited insight into the character through whose eyes we see it all. But we do see it all, and see it very beautifully (thanks to the eyes of cinematographer David Watkins) and we enjoy the vivid ladies, the scorpioni, endlessly. It is a feat of casting to throw together Dench, Plowright, Smith and Tomlin – and a touch of genius to add Cher. They each deliver what Zeffirelli wants: full, rounded, complex characters whose attitudes and actions drive the story of a boy’s reflection on a decade that changed not only his life but the world’s. In that sense, the film is at once political and personal, and of course a social document. It is still curious (at least to me) why so many English were drawn to Italy and why so many writers chose to explore them. Nothing could be more like a fish out of water than a Lady Hester in Florence – whether now or in the 1930. Or is that it?"
Andrew L. Urban

"Glorious to the eye and the spirit, Tea with Mussolini is a splendid reflection of yesteryear Florence, weaving together the textures of Italy, its art and culture, with the complexities of the British Tea society. The latter is a society with which I, as a child living in post British India, am only too familiar – a culture of ex pats who are kings of their environment, albeit far from home. The contrasts of all things beautiful – elegance, refinement and natural beauty collide with the ugliness of war and ensuing changes. But ultimately, Zeffirelli's passionate tale of childhood memories, embellished by the wisdom of hindsight, is a story of the beauty and strength of the human spirit. It is an ode to friendship, love, joy and appreciation of beauty. It is a descriptive piece that will engage you as surely as the frescos and magnificence of the architecture. Eloquence and restraint are in abundant supply; the script is economical and witty, while the performances from the top cast, are superb. In fact, it's worth having Tea with Mussolini for the performances alone. Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Judi Dench give such detailed, intricate performances that draw you compellingly to their characters. Smith is the epitome of the British matriarch – outwardly steely, but inwardly sensitive. Joan Plowright's matter of fact Mary, is complex with inward sentimentality, while Judi Dench's standout eccentric artist dog-lover will melt your heart. Cher is beautifully cast as the flamboyant former Ziegfield dancer, even singing a few phrases – you've not heard Smoke Gets in Your Eyes quite like this before. As the world of the British high tea intersects with the shadowy streets of war, we embark on a journey that is both moving, entertaining and totally uplifting. The heavily stringed haunting score soars as the splendid production design, costumes and visual beauty of the lush Italian country side impress. Take Tea with Mussolini - style never goes out of date."
Louise Keller

"Watching this latest film from Franco Zeffirelli, one is reminded of the glorious Italian frescoes depicted in the film. Lush, adoring and exquisitely detailed, the film is an old-fashioned work by a veteran master. It's not Romeo and Juliet, but the film is a loving reminder of the greatness that exists within the acting fraternity, and this delightful gem is the perfect showcase of acting par excellence. John Mortimer’s witty script, Tea with Mussolini is a series of vignettes, perhaps a collage of sketches, detailing the lives of this feisty group of women refusing to leave Florence under any circumstances. It's not a film that relies on conventional narrative; it zips its way through World War 2, leaving us with a glimpse of British colonial attitudes, rather than a whole. But this doesn't seem to matter, because the film is deliciously peppered with wit and panache, making it irresistible to both the ear and eye. The glorious cinematography of David Watkin and the impeccable art direction of Carlo Centolavigna and Gioia Fiorella Mariani enhance this. The performances are faultless. These grand dames of the British theatre chew scenes like nobody else, and do so with gluttonous abandon. Maggie Smith is the biggest scene-stealer of them all, and is a delight at every turn and with every gesture. Also memorable is Joan Plowright. Cher is no slouch either, as a kind of robust Auntie Mame. The adage: There are no small parts, only small actors, does not apply here. Here is a sharply written film about humanity and self-determination, a wonderfully witty and delightful entertainment."
Paul Fischer

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 3
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 0

LILY TOMLIN INTERVIEW

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI INTERVIEW

TEA WITH MUSSOLINI (PG)
(US)

CAST: Paul Chequer, Cher, Judi Dench, Massimo Ghini, Charlie Lucas, Lily Tomlin, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith

DIRECTOR: Franco Zeffirelli

PRODUCER: Ricardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni, Cliver Parsons

SCRIPT: John Mortimer, Franco Zeffirelli

CINEMATOGRAPHER: David Watkin

EDITOR: Tariq Anwar

MUSIC: Alessio Vlad & Stefano Arnaldi

ART DIRECTOR: Carlo Centolavigna, Gioia Fiorella Mariani

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 29, 1999

VIDEO RELEASE: March 15, 2000

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures Video







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