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11 May 2013

Tea With Mussolini (1999)

Directed by: Franco Zeffirelli
Starring: Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Cher, 
Charlie Lucas, Baird Wallace, Michael Williams, Paolo Seganti, 
Lily Tomlin, Tessa Pritchard, Mino Bellei, Massimo Ghini
It takes a certain amount of directorial vision to take a chapter out of one's own life set in the period before World War II, add dollops of humour and come up with a thoroughly engaging film. 
As war films go, this is not a gritty look at the horrors of war. It is, however, a look at how people get so caught up in the business of living that before they know it, world events are right at their doorsteps; how, despite the mayhem around, one strives to live as ordinary a life as possible, and how misery makes for strange bed-fellows. 

The film begins in Florence, Italy, in 1934. A group of expatriate Englishwomen live in a small pensione and meet for tea every afternoon. Called the Scorpioni by the locals, they are led by the doughty Lady Hester Random (Dame Maggie Smith), who was the wife of the late British ambassador to Italy (she never lets anyone forget it). The motley group includes Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright), who works as secretary to an Italian cloth merchant (Massimo Ghini), turning his florid prose into plain English. 
Mary is witness to her employer's cavalier attitude towards his illegitimate son, Luca (Charlie Lucas).
Yet he is not a negligent father, because as he says, he pays for the child's upkeep and in fact, pays her so she can teach him to be a proper English gentleman. She tries to convince him to bring the child home, but her employer balks at the request. And she's brought Luca to the office? Is she mad?! 
Finally, after another episode where Luca runs away from the orphanage in search of his mother, (who he doesn't know is dead) a dressmaker, Mary takes responsibility for the boy. When her fellow Scorpioni offer to help, she gratefully accepts.
Instigated to spend some time with his son by Mary's constant exhortations, Luca's father tries his best, but one visit taxes his patience. His abrupt departure leads to Mary telling Luca the truth - his mother will never return. 
Enter Elsa Morganthall (Cher) an American chanteuse who makes a habit of marrying elderly millionaires. 
Lady Hester barely tolerates Elsa, thinking her typical of a vulgar American.
When Elsa hears about Luca's mother's death, she offers to set up a trust for Luca with the money she owed his mother for her services. It will not make him rich, but will give him 'an independence'. Mary, to whom she makes this offer, is relieved.
Fascism is on the rise in Italy, and so the British Consul Witham (Michael Williams) warns Lady Hester many times; but she pooh-poohs the suggestion that Il Duce will go to war. The Scorpioni continue to meet at Doney's Tea Room and the Galleria Uffizzi, where they gossip about the locals and about each other. Until one day, Doney's is vandalised by the fascists. 

Lady Hester's reaction is to call on Benito Mussolini himself, firm in her belief that Mussolini would protect her and other British expatriates from any harm. The dictator is encouraged to meet her and reporter Connie Raynor (Tessa Pritchard) by his canny advisors who see great potential for propaganda; after all, the widow of the late British Ambassador and the American reporter have great influence in their respective countries. So, of course, Lady Hester receives Il Duce's profuse (and insincere) reassurances and returns in triumph, and with a photo taken with the dictator.
However, even as Lady Hester is touting the victory of British diplomacy, the political situation continues to deteriorate. 
Luca's father, who all the while wanted Luca to be brought up as 'a proper English gentleman' now sacks Mary, and sends Luca to Austria because 'the future lies with Germany'. 
Years fly by, and fascism continues to rise in Italy. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Lady Hester continues to believe that Italy will not go to war, and disagrees with Witham when he begs them to go back to England. As for the Jews being rounded up, surely he doesn't believe every bit of pink propaganda he reads in the newspapers? 
Meanwhile, Luca, now a young man (Baird Wallace), has come back only to find that the consulate has closed down and Mary and her cohorts no longer live at the Pensione. But he manages to run into Elsa, who is now Elsa Morganthall no longer; she is Elsa Strauss-Almerson. 

10th June 1940. Italy declares war, and all English expatriates are being rounded up and taken into custody. Lady Hester is adamant that not only does she have diplomatic immunity, but she's under Il Duce's  personal protection. Meanwhile, Luca manages to track Mary down, but it is hello and good-bye all in the same breath. The English women are being taken to San Gimignano, the city of a hundred towers, in Tuscany.

Elsa and Georgie (Lily Tomlin), being US citizens are still free (USA has not entered the war yet), and as the oppression of the Jews increases, Elsa uses her wealth and enlists Luca to deliver forged passports and other papers to help them escape. She also gets Luca to deliver forged orders, purportedly from Mussolini, to get the English women out of internment and into a more comfortable hotel. Lady Hester is delighted. Her faith in Mussolini has been vindicated. 

Meanwhile, Japan has bombed Pearl Harbour, the US have entered the war, and Elsa is now as much an enemy alien as the Scorpioni are. The women are back in the barracks at San Gimignano.

Her art dealer, Cesare (Mino Bellei) finds out that Elsa had signed off her bungalow, her vast art collection and even her money over to Vittorio (Paolo Seganti), an Italian lawyer who is now her lover, believing he will join her in Switzerland. Unknown to her, the forged papers that Vittorio gives her are her death warrant. Vittorio is planning to betray Elsa to the fascisti as an American Jew. 
It is Cesare who warns Mary that Elsa must be taken out of Italy as soon as possible. When Mary finds out that Luca knew about it, she is more than disappointed. And now Elsa is holed up in her room in the barracks, too frightened to move.

Will Luca grow up enough to understand what it is he has to do? What about Lady Hester? What does she have against Elsa, and will that stop her from helping Elsa escape?

Set in the period between 1934 and 1945, Tea With Mussolini tells the tale of a group of elderly British ladies who lived in Florence, Italy, during the 30s and 40s. The locals called them Scorpioni for their biting wit. It was one of these women, Mary O'Niell, who adopted Zeffirelli, the illegitimate son of a cloth merchant, when he was left alone during that very chaotic period. Until their internment in San Gimignano at the advent of World War II, after which he never saw them again, Mary O'Niell opened the doors of a new world to the young boy - she taught him Shakespeare, and taught him the beauties of art and literature. 

The script by John Mortimer has some lovely repartee, especially between Lady Hester and Elsa. During the escape, Elsa says, Are you trying to get rid of me? Lady Hester's reply is, Absolutely! Earlier, when Elsa asks why Lady Hester is helping her, especially since she's always hated Elsa, Lady Hester responds: Because we're creatures from two different worlds, you and I. Because I have despised you. And you have laughed at me and the Scorpioni. And because, in spite of all that, you've been very kind to us and kept it a secret. And because we've both been very foolish women. We've both trusted men who've turned out to be bastards.  

Some of the best lines are handed on a plate to Lady Hester, and Dame Maggie Smith picks them up and spits them out with glee. At the end of the film, when they are 'rescued' by the Scottish regiment and told they have to be moved to a place of safety in Rome, she tells the officer in charge: The Germans and the Italians couldn't get rid of us. There is absolutely no reason why we should surrender to the Scots.
This is a film with an ensemble cast, and the script works because there is some serious acting talent at work. Acting honours, in my opinion, are equally split between Dame Maggie Smith, who is at her pithy, autocratic best (though this is a role I think she could do in her sleep), Joan Plowright, who is the movie's backbone and the voice of its conscience, Dame Judi Dench (acting very much against type as an ageing hippy artist with more passion for art than genuine talent, and Charlie Lucas, who plays the young Luca. 
Cher does a rather good job as Elsa Morganthall Strauss-Almerson, the rich and vulgar American (yes, the stereotypes are rather heavyhanded), who has a kind heart under all the fluff. They are ably supported by Lily Tomlin, Tessa Pritchard, Italian actor Mino Bellei, Michael Williams (Dame Judi Dench's late husband in one of his last film roles), and a script that delivers sharp wit and poignant statements with equal elan.
Luca himself, as a stand-in for Zeffirelli, doesn't really catch our attention. It is as if he is just an observer, and while the film purports to tell his tale, it doesn't seem to take a deep look at how the women influenced him or his life. Instead, the women take the stage, front and centre, and we see them through Luca's eyes. He seems nothing more than a bystander in his own life at this point.

So is the film really autobiographical? In a 1999 interview to Pitch Weekly, Zeffirelli demurred. "You always have to adjust what really happened," he explained. "You are no longer that person, so how can you find an actor who can interpret you at that age? It's always an artificial mechanism. Those are things that happened to me, but somebody has to rehash them and make them happen in a different way." In fact, he is not even sure whether Lady Hester was called  Hester. He remembers a very autocratic dowager who did many outrageous things because she could afford to be arrogant and bossy. He gave the material to John Mortimer (of Rumpole of the Bailey fame) and John created the character that Dame Maggie Smith brought to life. He does credit the original Scorpioni for teaching him to see his city in a new and wondrous light.


  1. I don't care for war films (even if remotely connected) so was very happy and satsfied reading your excellently written review.

    I burst out laughing at the short and sweet - Dear sir LOL.

    And Maggie Smith's - American....reminded me of her role in Downton Abbey where she has an American Daughter-in-law, and exercises her wit on her.
    Thanks Anu. Enjoyed reading the review.

    Would have given a youtube link of a collection of this wit, but haven't updated yet, and it won't get posted. But I might just try in a different way to give the address at least.


  2. PS: THe collection is of Maggie Smith's comments are from Downton Abbey.

  3. You seemed to have liked the film.
    From oyur description it sounds good as well.
    When it was released I didn't watch it, because my friends told me though the humour is nice, the film depends much on the visuals, rather than the depth of its characters.
    Goes to show, not to rely on the other's opinions!

  4. Thank you, pacifist. I like very few war movies myself, but this one has more to do with how life changes when war is at your borders than 'war' itself. Do try it, you might like it. :) Maggie Smith was brilliant. As usual.

  5. You watch Downton Abbey/i> too? :) I loved the first season. Season 2 wasn't as good, and I'm afraid Season 3 is such a soap, suds are in danger of coming out of the television. What rescues the soap opera plot is the consistently good acting from the cast, though they seem to be killing off all the good characters. :(

  6. Harvey, the visuals are fantastic, and yes, it is a 'lighter' movie on the horrors of war and how it affects people, but it is definitely worth a watch.

  7. Yes, and I heard it is going on for seven seasons, so wonder what the heck is going on. It's going to be watered down as each episode progresses.

    I can see how DA trips would be popular - anything to make money. :)

  8. Oh I wish you would, pacifist; it would be interesting to see what you make of it. Look, it's not a great film, but it is eminently watchable because of the acting.

  9. It is wonderful, Madhu. One of those very delightful films that may not be great cinema, but keeps your interest throughout. And yes, the acting. Oh, it is amazing how the veterans can just steal the scene with the lift of an eyebrow, or the turn of their mouth! It is also a visual spectacle - Italy is truly beautiful!

    Laughing at your tale from the past.Il Duce becoming Second Duce is shocking. Especially from a history teacher! And they don't even care enough about their subject to find out. :(

    I too had a history teacher of the same type - the ones who have no interest in history, take no pleasure in teaching, and manage to make even the most interesting chapters dry as dust. :( It's a wonder that we still manage to find history intersesting - teachers such as the ones we had should have murdered any fledgling interest in the subject!

  10. I have missed a lot while I was busy with various other things,now I am catching up. This is a good review, often films release, we read the reviews, get a bit confused and are not sure whether we should waste our time and effort to go and see the film. But and that is a big BUT, a review like this one,makes you sit up and take notice and when you have such veterans like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench doing the honours I do not think the film can go wrong. Your review was absorbing and now I would like to catch this one. Apart from your review I enjoyed Madhu's comment about her history teacher, sure reminded me of my geography teacher.

  11. Thank you so much, Shilpi. :) Yes, do watch it for the absolutely top-class acting.

    I think we've all had teachers like the one Madhu mentioned. :)


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