The mugging, powdered British actresses who occupy center stage in Tea With Mussolini play up their Britishness like vaudevillians. Whether this is what Franco Zeffirelli — director of the besottedly romantic 1968 Romeo and Juliet — had in mind when he dreamed up this rococo homage to his Italian childhood, and to the proud ladies of the Commonwealth living in and around Florence before World War II, is up for debate.
Zeffirelli surely meant to honor the indefatigable pip-pipness of the exotic Englishwomen he knew as a child, fondly recalling their gentle eccentricities and the expatriate love for Tuscany that blinded them to the fascist threat of Il Duce. But it’s hard to distinguish heartfelt tribute from campy indulgence in this prettified drama, a tutti-frutti of Travels With My Aunt, the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson, and — for one mad moment when the director stages his own little battle in the golden hill town of San Gimignano — Saving Private Ryan.
In this retelling, the Indomitable Old Girls adopt young Luca Innocenti, a bambino born out of wedlock and abandoned by his father after his mother’s death. Put it this way: As Luca’s primary guardian, Joan Plowright — she of the teddy bear button eyes and steak-and-kidney-pie matronisms — is the understated one. At least she’s understated compared with the ubiquitous Judi Dench, who, in Isadora Duncanish scarves and sandals, capers loopily as a passionate worshiper of Italian art. Dench, in turn, is demure compared with Maggie Smith (heck, John Cleese in drag would be demure compared with Maggie Smith), who, nose at full mast, plays the self-appointed queen of this cackling gaggle, a foolish snob who thinks ”Mr. Mussolini” is a perfect gent. (Dench and Smith took over when Angela Lansbury and Vanessa Redgrave dropped out of the produc-tion; Dame Edna Everage and Eddie Izzard apparently weren’t available.)
In fact, it’s a rich and free-spirited American woman who generously pays the bills for Luca (played by Charlie Lucas as a boy, Baird Wallace as a blank teenager) as well as for the ladies she calls the ”scorpioni.” And even Dame Maggie has her work cut out for her keeping up with the swannings of Cher as Elsa, the perpetually madcap American, an art collector and former Ziegfeld dancer who is also Jewish, and thus in particular danger.
Always likable, always soft-focus, always strange, Cher does her darndest acting (supported by fellow countrywoman Lily Tomlin as a blunt archaeologist who digs girls as well as Etruscan ruins), and she wears opulent dresses and major hats. But Cher’s talk-show-style delivery diminishes Elsa’s complexities. The screenplay by Rumpole of the Bailey creator John Mortimer and Zeffirelli values quips and declamations over natural conversation (or an explanation of how such intelligent women could have been so blind to world events). And Zeffirelli’s penchant for turning life into opera makes Tea With Mussolini more Enchanted Fascist April than a memoir of any clarity or depth. D+