Tea With Mussolini

1999, PG, 116 min. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Starring Paolo Seganti, Massimo Ghini, Baird Wallace, Charlie Lucas, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Cher.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., May 14, 1999

Tea With Mussolini sounds like an elegant affair, but its pinky is barely extended. Franco Zeffirelli's contrived autobiographical film about his youth in fascist Italy has little social grace -- it's embarrassingly awkward, like a dilettante playing the doyenne. The plot embellishments are many -- poetic license is exercised with little restraint here -- so much so that the movie has a fabricated, even fake feel about it. (Shades of Lillian Hellman and Julia.) Aside from Zeffirelli's self-ennoblement, the primary purpose of Tea With Mussolini appears to be casting actresses who have either perfected playing similar roles over the years or who have actually lived those parts: flamboyant, nouveau riche American entertainer (Cher); repressed, annoying Englishwoman with an eventual heart of gold (Smith); kindhearted, nurturing Englishwoman with a constant heart of gold (Plowright); and rowdy lesbian (Tomlin). These colorful women, expatriates living in Florence, raise the motherless Luca (Zeffirelli's alter ego) in a way that's meant to be unconventional -- where's Auntie Mame when you need her? Luca's sentimental education is darkened by the rise of Il Duce and the advent of World War II, but those historical events play like a fairy tale in this movie. (The film's frequent superimposed titles, specifying the time and place, are oddly like those used in newsreels; the effect is unintentionally comic.) Even the beauty of Tuscany is shortchanged in Tea With Mussolini -- David Watkin's bleached-out cinematography is probably intended for nostalgic effect, but it just looks as if the film were overexposed. No doubt that the aging Zeffirelli wanted to wax rhapsodically about his formative years in Tea With Mussolini, but sadly enough, the end product is an exercise in corn. Let's just hope that he hasn't inspired other filmmakers to do the same. Leni Riefenstahl and Coffee With Hitler, anyone?

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Franco Zeffirelli Films
Callas Forever
While Callas Forever seems sincere in its attempt to pay tribute to the world’s most famous opera singer, it unwittingly disserves her in its bizarre wish-fantasy about resurrecting her voice onscreen.

Steve Davis, March 25, 2005

Turandot
...

Sept. 23, 2020

More by Steve Davis
Sicilia!
Restored Italian experiment is more form than substance

Sept. 11, 2020

House of Cardin
Biodoc of the fashion innovator is only sew-sew

Aug. 28, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Tea With Mussolini, Franco Zeffirelli, Paolo Seganti, Massimo Ghini, Baird Wallace, Charlie Lucas, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Cher

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle