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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Expats Meet Il Duce in 1930s Tuscany




Benito Mussolini is one of those important statesman posterity has often tended not to take entirely seriously. Had Franco Zeffirelli decided to shoot his latest film on tea-taking with Hitler or Stalin, he would probably have been done for frivolity and political incorrectness. But Il Duce was a well-calculated risk as the generally hidden focus of the half-serious, half-comic "Tea With Mussolini," now showing at the Kodak Cinema World.


Set in pre-World War II fascist Italy, the film opens at a time, 1935, when Mussolini's international approval rating was still high as "the gentleman who makes the trains run on time."


The Tuscan idyll, a well-tested formula for international blockbusters on Italy, is exploited to the full as Zeffirelli recreates the enviable lifestyle of a group of expatriate English women called the Scorpioni - a reference to their occasionally biting wit.


In the 1930s this colorful group really did reside luxuriously in Tuscany, driven by a typically English love for Italian art and architecture. In the film the eccentric bunch is led by the ambassadorial widow, the haughty Lady Hester Ransom (Dame Maggie Smith), who demands subservience from one and all. The artistic Arabella Delancey is played with characteristic gusto by Dame Judi Dench, with Joan Plowright completing the trio as the motherly Mary Wallace.


When the blackshirts disturb the group's Florentine bliss, an audience with Benito is the least Lady Hester expects. She gets it, along with a promise for personal protection. This storyline would perhaps have been sufficient in itself as a rather touching dialogue between historical reality and quaint, stubborn self-delusion (personified by the irrepressible Maggie Smith).


Instead the plot gets weighed down and diffused with two interlocking subplots that leave plenty of loose ends. Zeffirelli adds the pseudo-autobiographical story of the illegitimate child Luca Innocenti, orphaned and then scorpioned, and mixes it in with the expensive diversion of Cher in the role of the rich American art collector Elsa Morganthal. Predictably, she rubs the Brits the wrong way. Not so with the cutesy Luca, who becomes one of the objects of her rather confused affections. When she secretly provides financial aid to the Scorpioni (who still believe they are being safeguarded by Benito) to keep them in Tuscany, the various strands, cultural and historical, get unnecessarily tangled - Elsa's also having it off with an Italian fascist on the side.


The film remains eminently watchable, though, thanks largely to the quality of the stars and to the art direction. Shot on location primarily in Florence and San Gimignano by cinematographer David Watkin (whose credits include "Chariots of Fire" and "Out of Africa"), it is not hard to see why the Scorpioni wished to dig their claws in and stay.


- Oliver Ready