It would be fair to call Tea with Mussolini a chick flick, but it would be better to call it a broad film.
Pardon the pun, but your average movie has a narrow, linear story with varying amounts of “width” (e.g., subplots, tangents, minor characters). This one has five or six characters, all of whom at some point take center stage. Collectively, their stories form a very broad, meandering plot without anything so sharp as a single linear axis.
Tea with Mussolini is based on Zeffirelli’s autobiography. It is set before and during the Second World War, and it focuses on a clique of well-bred British and American women living in Florence (known as the “Scorpioni”). A boy, Luca, collectively adopted by the women, is presumably Zeffirelli.
With so many equally-important characters, there is lots of opportunity for great acting, both individually and as an ensemble. Zeffirelli packed the cast with some great actors and let them loose.
Joan Plowright is Mary Wallace, kind and decent, but no-nonsense when appropriate. She works for Luca’s “illegitimate” father, rewriting his flowery English into standard business-speak. Mary agrees to raise Luca, after she makes her friends agree to help.
Maggie Smith is Lady Hester Random. If you’ve seen Smith in any other movie, you have seen her in this one too. She is the most coldly proper of the clique. Her dear departed husband (the diplomat) comes up in every conversation, and that’s not the only evidence that she is living in the past. She believes that Mussolini is the gentleman who makes the trains run on time, and when his blackshirts start breaking windows, she refuses to believe that he has any knowledge of it.
In fact the title (in part) refers to Lady Hester. Using her husband’s connections, she arranges to meet Mussolini. She wants to tell him what his police have done, knowing that he will be as shocked as she. Ignoring his grave, martial palace and his bird-eating grin, she hears only his words: that he will offer her and her friends his personal protection.
Judi Dench has a small but colorful role as Arabella. She’s an amateur painter and poet who goes nowhere without her dog. She is the one who instills a love of art and beauty in Luca. With all of Dench’s recent great work, I wish she had played a bigger role.
Cher is the rich American Elsa. She knows how to wrap men around her little finger to get rare paintings, luxurious cars, and expensive furs, jewelry, shoes, and hats (each category gets a listing in the film’s credits.) Elsa travels the world, but when she’s in Florence she loves to visit the “scorpioni,” even if she occasionally resorts to using her claws.
Finally, Lily Tomlin plays Georgie, the American archaeologist (although the only evidence the film gives for her occupation is her wardrobe). Like Dench as Arabella, Tomlin is underused in a small but colorful role.
After the characters are introduced, fascism rises in Italy. Luca’s father sends him to Austria. The blackshirts show less and less respect to the British ladies. Once cultural friends, Britain and Italy are soon at war, and the British ladies are arrested and taken to a barracks. Luca, home from Austria, and the two American women, do what they can to make their friends’ lives better.
In spite of the war, the Scorpioni maintain their gentility and dignity. This gets to the real heart of the film’s title, and it’s main theme. The ladies’ approach to everything, even to a brutal dictator, is respectful, proper and very British. Although they must live in the reality of the war, the Scorpioni don’t have to stoop to its level. They can continue to take tea like civilized British citizens, every afternoon at 4:00. In a way, this film is like Life is Beautiful, because both show individuals trying to rise above the unpleasant reality of war.
Tea with Mussolini is densely packed with a dozen characters over a dozen years. To make room for it all, Zeffirelli makes the movie episodic: he shows a little slice of life