Tea With Mussolini: The Culture Club
Sep 12, 2001 (Updated Feb 6, 2006)
Review by Sheila Calabrese
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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This semi-autobiographical story by Italian Director Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet), is a highly entertaining account of the shift of Florence in the late 1930's and early 1940's from a haven for art and culture, to a haven for the Fascist Movement.
The story begins with the introduction of the members of the Scorpioni, an English/American ladies' society, known for their biting wit. They are celebrating the memory of the deceased poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in the cemetery in Florence where they are buried.
The matriarch of the society, Aunt Hester (Maggie Smith), is the widow of the British Ambassador to Italy. She is a brash, arrogant woman who brags about once having had tea with Benito Mussolini, whom she holds in high esteem. The second member, Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright), is a warm, kind-hearted matron, who is the secretary to an Italian Merchant. She is given the task of looking after his illegitimate son, Luca, when his mother dies. The other members are Arabella (Judi Dench), an off-beat, but strong willed expert in art restoration, and Georgie (Lily Tomlin) a fiercely loyal lesbian archaeologist. Other "fringe" members include an American journalist and critic Constance and Elsa, an ostentatious art collector, whom Aunt Hester dislikes because of her tacky style and lack of sophistication.
These ladies lead a comfortable lifestyle, where their biggest concerns are the preservation of art and culture, and collectively caring for young Luca. Elsa, who was a close friend of Luca's mother, sets up a trust fund for his education, and he is sent off to Austria.
When rumors of the Italians and Americans joining the war begin to circulate, Aunt Hester makes a personal visit to Mussolini in Rome, to gain assurance that the Scorpioni will be protected in the event that Italy enters the war. After being given his assurance, she is shocked when they are forcibly transported to a Tuscan village in the Italian countryside and housed in a gutted building with no conveniences or privacy.
Luca returns to Italy just as the ladies are being exiled. Now a young man, he becomes infatuated with Elsa. She teases him endlessly, and employs him as a messenger to deliver passports to fellow Jews trapped in Italy. She is also the secret patron of the Scorpioni, financing their transfer to more civilized quarters in a hotel. Aunt Hester, assumes that it is her hero, Mussolini, who is their benefactor.
The turning point of the movie occurs when the ladies are told that they must flee Italy or face grave danger. Aunt Hester declares that they have "diplomatic immunity" promised by Mussolini. However, this belief is shattered when they barely escape execution at the hands of the Fascists.
In the meantime, Elsa has been swindled out of her fortune by a deceitful lover and attorney. He has set a trap to have her turned over to the Fascists with the other Jews.
When Aunt Hester learns of Elsa's generosity to the ladies, she arranges for her escape. This is Luca's coming of age, when he risks his life to ensure Elsa's safety despite his broken heart.
Although this is a wonderfully engaging film, with remarkable performances by a wonderful cast, particularly, Cher as the indomitable Elsa, the plot line is a bit too contrived in the end. It is a bit of a stretch to see the ladies' blatant rebelliousness against the Fascist soldiers and authorities considering their vulnerable position.
The coming of age story of Luca (Baird Wallace) is poignantly touching, and the boldness and convictions of the ladies' to preserve their pre-war art and culture is quietly noble. However, it is the richness of the setting, the panoramic views of Florence and the Italian countryside, the inspired acting, and the realism of the world at war, that gives this lovely film it's excitement, and makes it a joy to be savored.
Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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