Political Film Society - Newsletter #43 - June 15, 1999

June 15, 1999


The Board of Directors of the Political Film Society will hold a meeting at 8481 Allenwood Road, Los Angeles, on June 19 at 7 p.m., primarily to reword legal documents to satisfy IRS regarding the Society’s application to be a tax-exempt organization.

Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, more than a decade before Hitler. That he made the trains run on time was quite enough to inspire praise from ordinary Italians, but for the Americans and British living in Florence one might imagine that a lack of democracy would be important. Not so for the females from England and the United States featured in Tea with Mussolini, the latest film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who attempts a cinematic autobiography with a not unexpected artistic license. The "Golden Girls" enjoy Florence as art lovers, deprecating Britain as a cultural desert in comparison, and forming a group called "Scorpioni" for their biting wit, much of it directed by English toward Americans. Mary (played by Joan Plowright) brings up an illegitimate but darling boy, Luca Innocenti (played as a youth by Charlie Lucas, as a teenager by Baird Wallace), who is rejected by his Italian father, an exporter of British-style clothing, his would-be Italian stepmother, and whose American mother is dead. Mary is assisted by the Scorpioni, including Arabella (played by Judi Dench) and Lady Hester (played by Maggie Smith) as well as two Americans—Georgie, a Lesbian archaeologist (played by Lily Tomlin) and Jewish art collector Elsa Morgenthal (played by Cher). As political options narrow due to the ascendancy of the Fascists, who disrupt lunch at Doney’s Tea Room, a restaurant frequented by the expatriates, Lady Hester decides to protest directly to Il Duce, since her late husband was Britain’s ambassador to Italy. During tea, the dictator (played by Claudio Spadaro) reassures her falsely that he will look out for her.

When other English-speaking expatriates leave Italy at the advice of the British consul, the good ladies remain, believing that Il Duce is protecting them and otherwise oblivious of their fate, but Italian Jews are arrested, Italy allies with Germany, the British ladies are placed under detention in a squalid dorm but keep up their spirits, and German soldiers arrive in Florence. Elsa, arrogant and rich but generous, secretly pays to have them moved to a hotel before she is herself in jeopardy after the United States enters World War II despite believing herself to be secure by sleeping with and trusting her perfidious chauffeur, who charms her by promising to escape with her to America while wondering whether Italian aliens will be incarcerated in the United States as Americans and Brits have been in Italy. The darling boy becomes a resistance fighter (here Zeffirelli departs from autobiographic reality) and arranges safe passage for Elsa out of Italy. In due course, a Scottish infantry unit liberates Florence, but in the nick of time, as the ladies have chained themselves to priceless works of architecture that the Germans planned to blow up. Such is the story, parading women as naïve fools in matters of politics who successfully defy the military orders of friends and foes, with many loose ends. We are reminded of the brave resistance and true story of women under Japanese detention in Indonesia during World War II in Paradise Road (1997), and we may wonder why Zeffirelli is determined to make fools of his women if only for the sake a few laughs and an effort to promote tourism in Florence for those who have forgotten Italian culture. It is a pity that Zeffirelli did not fight in the Italian resistance, as he would doubtless have made more heroic films, but perhaps we should be grateful that comedy could be found in the midst of the horrors of World War II, as in last year’s Academy award winner Life Is Beautiful, directed by Roberto Benigni. Indeed, recalling the story of the blind man in At First Sight who was happy as a lark because he always found helpful people, the lesson of Tea with Mussolini, Paradise Road, and Life Is Beautiful is the same—kind people can create heaven just about anywhere. MH

EXPOSÉ: Three Seasons