Tea with Mussolini

May 26, 1999 at 12:00 am

Although director Franco Zeffirelli adapted this film from a chapter of his autobiography, this story isn’t told from an Italian perspective. Instead, Tea with Mussolini is about that very specific love affair the English have with Italy as a place and an idea, an ardor which doesn’t necessarily extend to Italians themselves.

There’s a scene early in Tea with Mussolini that points out the inequity of the relationship. Zeffirelli portrays Florence’s fabled Uffizi in 1935 not as the jam-packed art museum of today, but as an exclusive gathering place for British expatriates. While working on their own amateurish copies of a Botticelli, they have tea. Not from a Thermos or merely a cup, but from full tea services on trays.

Then a group of Mussolini’s Blackshirts stride in purposefully and loudly declare that the British can have tea in one of their colonies instead of this "free country," and proceed to toss porcelain and canvases out the second-story windows. There are horrified squeals and much righteous English indignation, but the idea of artistic colonization permeates Tea with Mussolini.

Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith) often points out that her late husband was British ambassador to Italy, especially when addressing a group of expats at Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s gravesite. Like most of the proper English ladies living there, she hasn’t mastered even rudimentary Italian. Those who have, like fluttery would-be painter Arabella Delancey (Judi Dench), use it to chastise unthinking Italians for not properly maintaining their frescoes.

The American women also come off as cultural carpetbaggers, albeit with a little more warmth. They’re either archaeologists like Georgie (Lily Tomlin), lover of antiquities and Italian women, or collector Elsa (Cher), a former showgirl whose husband’s fortune is spent on modern art and handsome men.

There are exceptions, like the very practical bilingual English secretary Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) who takes Luca, her employer’s illegitimate son, under her protective wing. Mary and her friends provide his first artistic education and seek to turn Luca (Zeffirelli’s stand-in) into a proper English gentleman through liberal doses of Shakespeare.

What to make, then, of this group the Italians derisively dub scorpioni (scorpions)? Franco Zeffirelli obviously loves them and contrasts the implacable individuality of these eccentric women with the dangerous conformity of fascism. But Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre) can be a sentimentalist of the worst sort, and Tea with Mussolini proves that. All the complex issues he brings up, personal and political, are smothered in a syrup of pure schmaltz.

He’s created a substandard melodrama where women have grand passions for men, but are betrayed by duplicitous lovers and dictators alike. The only thing that never fails them is their true passion: art.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].