The latest film by Franco Zeffirelli is an attempt at a Life is Beautiful-like war-time fable. It falls completely flat.Tea with Mussolini begins in 1935 Florence, in an artistic colony of English women led by the austere Lady Hester (Maggie Smith). The group also includes a fey artist (Judi Dench) and Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright). Wallace is the guardian of a young Italian boy, Luca, neglected by his father. On the fringes of the group are a couple of Americans - a lesbian archaeologist (Lily Tomlin) and wealthy socialite art collector Elsa (Cher). As Mussoliniís hold on power tightens, and Italy enters the war, these steadfastly British women become enemy aliens and no longer welcome in Florence.
Paradise Road this ainít. Zeffirelliís light approach to this serious material (including the rise of fascism and anti-semitism), only succeeds in trivialising it. The resistance movement is just a game here, and no one is ever in any real danger. The upper crust Brits and their obsessive tea drinking is only mildly satirised, and the film is riddled with shameless stereotypes - vulgar Americans with hearts of gold and excitable, treacherous Italians. Zeffirelli wrote the screenplay with John Mortimer and itís apparently autobiographical - he is the boy Luca who is raised by English women, sent away to Austria and returns as a youth to join the resistance and do his best to free the women. But the real life elements do not give the film focus, especially as the actor who plays Luca is intimidated by the more experienced actors around him, and vanishes for the greater part of the movie.
The music score is intrusive, the distinguished cast are all unexceptional (they probably signed on for the holiday in Tuscan Italy) and the script is riddled with cliched guff about true love lasting forever. This film only has David Watkin's pretty cinematography in its favour. Its division into a comic half set before the war, and a more serious half during it, is reminiscent of Life is Beautiful. But Tea with Mussolini glosses over the tragic aspects of its tale and lacks the resonance of Life is Beautiful.Here, the biggest tragedy is the waste of talent on such insipid material.