Gypsies, Tramps, and Tea

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Tea With Mussolini * Written by John Mortimer and Franco Zeffirelli * Directed by Franco Zeffirelli * Starring Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, and Lily Tomlin * Goldwyn Films

Franco Zeffirelli gets all misty about pre-World War II Italy--and drags great actors with him

Having only just dried out from an unbelievably rainy autumn visit to Italy, I yearn to have lived in Florence before World War II. According to Franco Zeffirelli, it was a world kissed by eternal sunsets, a postcard-perfect landscape where ladies in white lace could promenade beneath parasols secure in the knowledge that they would need them only to shield against the inconvenience of ultraviolet.

Tea With Mussolini, Zeffirelli's autobiographical memory piece, is exactly the vision of an embattled Europe you would expect from a man who gave Romeo and Juliet the 64-Crayola sparkle of an MGM musical. The Zeffirelli approach to history combines the time-marches-on urgency of an old Movietone newsreel with the sun-dappled sheen of an Italian Tourist Authority brochure, throwing in Chef as a rich Jewish art collector who sings "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Kitsch like this money can't buy.

If there were a true environmental recipe for How to Raise a Big Italian Opera Queen Designer-Director Who Reveres English-Speaking Nations and Badmouths Gay Rights, you could do no better then the nurturing offered Zeffirelli's young surrogate, Luca. An illegitimate child who is shrugged off by his father after his mother dies, he is taken in by his father's secretary, Mary (Joan Plowright), one of a phalanx of English dowagers (known by the locals as scorpioni) who have resettled in Florence in the 1930s.

There are the good scorpioni like Mary, who schools Luca in Shakespeare through toy theaters, and Arabella (Judi Dench), a would-be artist who touches up frescoes and exposes Luca to the galleries. …