Courtesy Photo
*** stars 118 minutes | Rated: PG
Opened: Friday, May 14, 1999
Co-written & directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Starring Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, Charlie Lucas & Baird Wallace


Call it Merchant-Zeffirelli. If the romance of prim Brit life-comedy is your bag, "Tea" is a good rainy afternoon treat.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 11/16/99

Judi Dench:
"Shakespeare In Love" (1998)
"Mrs. Brown" (1997)
"Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997)
"Hamlet" (1996)
"Goldeneye" (1995)

Joan Plowright:
"Dance With Me" (1998)
"101 Dalmatians" (1996)

Maggie Smith:
"Washington Square" (1997)
"The First Wives Club" (1996)
"Richard III" (1995)

Lily Tomlin:
"Flirting With Disaster" (1996)

Delightful ensemble of drawing room eccentrics carry Zeffirelli's memoir movie

By Rob Blackwelder

Franco Zeffirelli has assembled a delightful ensemble of drawing room eccentrics for "Tea With Mussolini," his semi-autobiographical ode to his childhood in fascist-era Italy.

The channel for his relatively light story of patriotism, war and personal independence is an orphan named Luca (7-year-old rookie Charlie Lucas), who drifts in and out of the lives of a resolute gaggle of oddball expatriate English women sipping tea in Florence as despotism rises around them.

The cast is made up of the acting profession's classiest old broads. Joan Plowright ("Enchanted April," "101 Dalmatians"), does the wise, cookies-and-milk granny type she's become associated with in recent years. The wonderful Maggie Smith ("A Room With a View," "The First Wives Club"), plays an autocratic aristocrat who blinds herself to the madness of Mussolini's politics out of a erroneously presumed friendship with the dictator. The even more wonderful Judi Dench (Oscar winner for "Shakespeare In Love") is an aspiring painter with a penchant for "restoring" local frescoes, volunteering her meager abilities with the brush.

They're joined in helping raise the boy by two "vulgar Americans" -- Cher, playing a nouveau riche flamboyant with a loud couture wardrobe and an even louder mouth, and Lily Tomlin as an irreverently witty, blatantly butch, cigar-chomping archeologist -- who can't help but steal every scene they're in from their demure British counterparts.

Zeffirelli employs a lot of canned, "Masterpiece Theatre" sentimentality and the film seems at time little more than aimless wartime nostalgia. That is, until the women are placed under house arrest and Luca, now a teenager played by another newcomer Baird Wallace, joins the resistance and starts smuggling Jews out of Italy.

But the writer-director's sense of time and place are impeccable (Italy itself is practically a character) and the performances he commands brilliant, with special commendation to the remarkable range of emotion and humor shown by Cher, who looks 100-percent period in finger-waved hair, and to Tomlin, who gives the best performance of her career.

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