Franco Zeffirelli has been around a long time, involved in film making for fifty years, directing opera, sometimes combining the two. When he does Shakespeare, he is a "popularizer," as Roger Ebert put it. Zeffirelli’s film versions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliette are handsome productions; he casts popular and attractive actors and he aims at accessibility for a broad audience. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, so long as you haven’t plunked down the price of the ticket expecting new intellectual insight into the great classics.
Zeffirelli is flamboyant in his productions, which can work for or against the work, depending on what the work is and what you are looking for. His production of I Pagliacci for Los Angeles Opera (later televised) filled every inch of the stage not only with singers, but with crowds, dogs, fire eaters, transvestites, clowns, acrobats. On the stage, it actually worked brilliantly and the drama was powerful. On the television screen, it just seemed busy and distracting. Zeffirelli’s productions in recent years for the Metropolitan Opera are loved by some, hated by others. They are certainly popular and sell a lot of tickets. Purists say that the excessive, over-the-top productions distract from the opera itself. Take your pick.
So whether you like Tea With Mussolini or not will depend a lot on what you expect from it. If you go in looking for intellectual depth, new insights, or a film that challenges, expect to be disappointed. If you want some light and charming entertainment and are attuned to Zeffirelli’s rather conventional approach to the medium, then you can have a very good time as he offers a romanticized, sentimental (but not cloying) memoir of his life as an abandoned bastard in 1930’s Florence.
Not every young man in such a position has the good fortune to come under the wing of a wise and loving widow (Joan Plowright) and her circle of eccentric, aging expatriate Englishwomen, known as the "Scorpioni," for their outspoken views. If that is not a setup for a group of great character actresses to chew up the scenery, what is? Zeffirelli knows how to treat his divas, and each member of this group gets a chance for at least one star turn.
Plowright is the anchor here, the sensible, loving, motherly type – straight man, as it were, for the high jinks of the others. "There are no illegitimate children in this world," she tells a neglectful father, "only illegitimate parents."
Maggie Smith plays what she has played so well for so many years in so many roles, from Jean Brody to Aunt Augusta to Charlotte Bartlett: the imperious, self-important grande dame looking down her nose with disdain at an inferior world, as she hides her insecure underpinnings and struggles to uphold her dignity against the forces destined to bring them crashing down. When she says with dripping condescension, "Americans simply don’t understand picnics," both her delivery and the character she has skillfully developed transform the line into high humor. You know this lady is being primed for a comeuppance.
Judi Dench has far less to do as the dotty bohemian aesthete, but with the smallest of gestures or expressions – like an occasional raised eyebrow – she makes her character real, sympathetic and very funny. She throws herself in poetic ecstasy onto the tomb of Elizabeth Barret Browning (the archetype of the Englishwoman in Italy) as she recites a Browning poem, naturally garbling a key word – and Smith is right there to correct her.
Cher is perfectly cast as a rich American adventuress, a retired Follies girl, both an opportunist and a sucker with a heart of gold. "He’s too cheap to slip a poor girl a little Picasso," she complains of her current husband who denies her latest passion for acquisition. No one could have done better than Zeffirelli at seeing to it that Cher has one outrageously flamboyant outfit after another in which to parade about.
Baird Wallace is occasionally awkward as Luca – Zeffirelli as a young man – but he’s a charmer, nonetheless. Only Lily Tomlin seems wasted here. The humor of her role is based entirely on the fact that the character is a rather forthright lesbian (a degree of honesty Ms. Tomlin has yet to achieve in real life). She does get a few good lines, but not enough to allow her to exercise the great comedic wit of which she is capable.
The cinematography of Florence and Tuscany is lovely and the interior sets are lush; the fascism is, at worst, bad manners, and the war is thoroughly sanitized here. Zeffirelli, never one to do less rather than more, could well have tightened the nearly two hour running time by a good twenty minutes. Still, there’s a good time to be had with Zeffirelli’s fluffy, cotton candy trip down il sentiero dei ricordi.