Starring: Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin, Baird Wallace
Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Language, Brief Nudity and Some Mild Violence
"Tea with Mussolini" doesn't start out strong, but at least it finishes well. Director Franco Zeffirelli has trouble introducing all the characters and setting up the plot, but once things kick into high gear around the 30-45 minute mark, the film takes off. The question is, can the rest of the film "save" the film? I'm not sure, but it comes close.
In the era between the wars, there was no better place to be for art-loving retirees than Florence, Italy. Filled with pieces from just about every period dating back to Ancient Rome, it was the perfect place for those with a lot of money and nothing to do. The film follows five of these ladies: prim and arrogant Lady Hestor Random (Smith), motherly Mary Wallace (Plowright) is raising a child Luca (Charlie Lucas) whose father and stepmother want nothing to do with him, Georgie (Tomlin) is a lesbian archaeologist and Arabella (Dench) loves her dog as much as she does art. But war is coming, and these ladies will have to rely on the help of a brash American jetsetter named Elsa (Cher) to help them.
Zeffirelli tries to keep the tone light amid the trials and tribulations of living through a war. Making a cheery war story requires a deft touch and he gets it right about, say, 60% of the time. The other times it feels either forced or lacking in substance. The script is too weak to support such a complex tone, and as a result it sometimes feels like a TV movie. It's never unwatchable, but a more skilled director would have been able to make a stronger film.
At least the film attracted some star actresses to fill the ranks. With names like these, it's almost impossible for it to be boring. None of them walk through their parts, which is fortunate. Had they done so or the filmmakers cast lesser thespians, the film would have been unwatchable. Special mention has to go to Cher, who steals her scenes through sheer force of personality, and has zero trouble with the more emotionally taxing scenes. Judi Dench goes over-the-top on at least one occasion, but I fault the script since she's so talented. Baird Wallace is effective as the older Luca and is capable of holding his own against his other, more experienced co-stars.
The beginning of the film is problematic. The script is clunky and the editing is haphazard. At least the set design is great, but Zeffirelli fails to establish a constant narrative flow. However, once the adult Luca shows up, the film finds a solid foundation and takes off. The plot flows more smoothly and there is some dramatic tension and suspense.
But is it enough to earn the film a recommendation? "Tea with Mussolini" was never going to have a wide audience. It's not that kind of movie. But that's no reason why it couldn't have been more effective and affecting. A movie like this can be hard to pull off, but it can be done. "Mrs. Henderson Presents" comes to mind, although that's probably because both star Judi Dench. And in a strange way, "Pan's Labyrinth." But unless this kind of small budget drama appeals to you, especially if it's only of adequate quality, I suggest you try something else.