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You Won't Find A More Shallow Treatment Of Fascist Symps Than Franco Zeffirelli's 'Tea With Mussolini.'

By James DiGiovanna

JUNE 14, 1999:  MY COUNTRYMAN FRANCO Zeffirelli has directed some 19 films, from the gorgeous-but-vapid Romeo and Juliet (1967), through the beautiful-but-insipid Brother Sun, Sister Moon, to the lovely-but-moronic Jane Eyre. With a slight suspension of intellectual faculty, all of these films have been deeply rewarding on some level--the one at which they're really pretty to look at.

Unfortunately, his latest is not quite as picturesque. Tea with Mussolini is perhaps Zeffirelli's most intelligent film, but that's kind of like picking Stephen King's most romantic novel.

Based on Zeffirelli's autobiography, it focuses largely on a group of English women living the English dream, i.e. spending all of their time far away from England. They're part of the ex-pat community that grew up in Florence in the 19th century. Seeing themselves as the heirs to the Brownings, these women make mediocre paintings and second-rate poetry while enjoying the hospitality of a country made newly efficient by the rise of Mussolini.

The film begins in 1935, when Italy and England were still on good terms. The imperious head of the English colony notes her approval of the new Italy by telling a friend, "We live in an age of great dictators." Yes, but Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, she is told. Of course, she replies, "All of the best people in Europe have empires."

Played by Maggie Smith in her usual stiffly regal style, Lady Hester is fond of fascism and afternoon tea, and despises Americans, Jews and crassness. Thus, she is triply irked by the arrival of crass, Jewish-American singer Elsa, played by crass, Native American singer Cher.

Elsa, Hester, the dowdy Mary (Joan Plowright) and the hopelessly artistic Arabella (Judi Dench, in a rare non-Queen-of-England role) all take part in raising young Luca, a boy whose father doesn't want to be bothered with his illegitimate son. Thus, young Luca, a stand-in for director Zeffirelli, gains an entire gaggle of mothers who attempt to teach him how to be a good Englishman.

Oddly, in spite of the fact that this is Zeffirelli's autobiographical film, and Luca is supposed to be Zeffirelli, Luca drops out of the film for a period in the middle so as to allow the plot to focus more closely on the relationships between the women.

The story drifts between the characters then, but there are too many for any one to take on much interest. The script, though occasionally funny, is incapable of providing much texture to the different women beyond the simple stereotypes of stiff Englishwoman (Maggie Smith), caring nanny (Plowright), ditzy artist (Dench), lesbian archaeologist (Lily Tomlin) and vulgar American (Cher).

Tea with Mussolini attempts to pick up the pace by having the years drift by, imposing the numbers "1936," "1937," "1938," etc. over the screen as montage images show the effects of fascism and World War II on a previously peaceful Italy. Since the war has little effect on the women other than to move them from their estate to a barracks and then to a luxury hotel, it seems more like some distant inconvenience than an actual problem. Scenes of smuggled passports and midnight meetings with dissidents look, through Zeffirelli's gorgeous lens, like a great deal of fun--a kind of game of hide-and-seek. Much of the drama is leeched out of the war years by the fact that nothing ugly is shown on screen, and none of the characters seem to be in great danger.

It's only when the Nazis take over Italy that at least one of the women comes into jeopardy. Elsa, the Jewish American whose vast wealth has kept the group safe and pampered throughout the war, might be arrested by the Gestapo. But it seems odd that only the wealthy and beautiful Elsa (well, she's supposed to be beautiful, though Cher's post-modern approach to plastic surgery strikes me more as "scary" and "weird") is affected by this situation. Weren't there, I don't know, some 6 million other Jews who faced a bit of trouble at this time?

Usually, a Zeffirelli film is saved from its lack of depth by the precise camerawork and lush art direction; but here that's been toned down, perhaps so as not to take away from what Zeffirelli thought was his most serious work. The cinematography remains impeccable but is far from showy, except for one wide-angle shot through Mussolini's marble hallways. Instead of eye candy, Zeffirelli offers up a string of witty quips in his script, including such bon mots as "the Americans can even vulgarize ice cream," and "is that an Italian 'I'll do it' or an American 'I'll do it'?" However, these are spread thin so as to avoid trivializing his subject with humor. Unfortunately, Zeffirelli trivializes it even less amusingly with the inconsequential lives of his characters.

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