Franco Zeffirelli has been kicking around the film world for so long that he's sort of become a great director by default. He rocketed to international celebrity with his lavish, erotically charged 1968 production of "Romeo and Juliet" and has basically made a living on it ever since. Zeffirelli's better movies have relied on Shakespeare's language ("Hamlet," 1990), Verdi's music ("La Traviata," 1982) or both ("Otello," 1986). Somehow his reputation didn't suffer much from "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," a hippie-dippy film about the life of St. Francis of Assisi with music by Donovan, or the 1981 Hollywood teen weeper "Endless Love," with its affectless performance by Brooke Shields and its memorably awful theme song. I don't mean to be harsh; Zeffirelli is a consummate showman with an eye for picture and spectacle, and a shrewd sense of how to market himself to the art-film audience of English-speaking Europhiles. That doesn't make him a great artist, but it's an admirable way for a street kid from Florence to make a living.
As the sweet-tempered, soft-focus "Tea With Mussolini" reveals, Zeffirelli's connections to Britain and America didn't spring from affectation or calculation, but grew organically out of his peculiar childhood in fascist Italy. A semi-fictional adaptation of the filmmaker's recent memoir (the screenplay was co-written by English novelist and playwright John Mortimer), "Tea With Mussolini" focuses on Luca, the illegitimate son of an important Florentine merchant, who is informally adopted by a group of dotty, eccentric English ladies living in Italy for their own dotty, eccentric reasons.
In a cast loaded with star actresses, the best of them is probably the least famous -- Joan Plowright displays marvelous depth as Miss Wallace, a sensible spinster who takes Luca in despite her better judgment. Beneath her pursed lips and prissy table manners, Miss Wallace harbors both a romantic heart and a generous spirit. When she and the Luca of age 10 or so (Charlie Lucas) perform a puppet version of "Romeo and Juliet" together, we get that tiny thrill that comes with watching a sensibility being born; it's probably the movie's warmest and least artificial moment.
Many of the other characters in cinematographer David Watkin's gauzy, almost watercolored vision of Florence are caricatures, however agreeably and skillfully performed. As Lady Hester, a haughty aristocrat convinced that the Fascists are upholding the truest virtues of civilization, Maggie Smith is all huffs and puffs, snarky asides and superior expressions. ("Why shouldn't Mussolini have an empire?" she sniffs. "All the best people in Europe have empires.") The film's title refers to Lady Hester's hilarious audience with the pompous dictator (wonderfully captured by Claudio Spadaro) in his brilliant white inner sanctum, which for all its undoubted historical accuracy looks to contemporary eyes like a "Star Trek" set. Il Duce tells the swooning noblewoman of his love for Byron's poetry and assures her that the English expatriate community is under his personal protection; within weeks, of course, the English are banned from having afternoon tea in the Uffizi and branded as official pariahs.
Despite her star billing, Judi Dench has only a small part as Arabella, a would-be painter in floppy Isadora Duncan wear who tells Luca she is not cold, like other Englishwomen: "I have drunk deep the air of Firenze; I have warmed my hands before the fires of Michelangelo and Botticelli." Cher's part is also modest, but she, of course, is not, and while she's in the movie almost everything else fades into the background. I generally don't know what to make of Cher as an actress -- she doesn't really play characters other than her own, which is to say an irrepressible, wisecracking, implausibly sexy American broad who takes up all the air in the room. She shows up here as Elsa, a flamboyant Jewish art collector, just when the flagging narrative of "Tea With Mussolini" needs a jolt of energy. After telling Luca that his dead dressmaker mother was "better than Schiaparelli," Elsa makes occasional appearances in the boy's life as a sort of loudmouth muse, eventually awakening his interest in America, in Picasso and in women.
Even as the tenor of Mussolini's Italy turns increasingly dark and the shadow of war encroaches on Florence's little England, "Tea With Mussolini" never surrenders its mood of tender, vague nostalgia. Luca's father sends him to school in Austria, telling Miss Wallace that "English is no longer the language of the future." But we see nothing of this, meeting the boy again only when he returns to Florence as a teenager (played by Baird Wallace) in 1940, just as the English women (and, not long after, the Americans) are interned as enemy aliens. Perhaps realizing that the World War II heavy lifting should be left to other filmmakers, Zeffirelli keeps his focus on the domestic comedy of the women's camp in the medieval city of San Gimignano. Lady Hester continues to regard Elsa with revulsion -- unaware that the rich and vulgar American is paying for their comfortable lodgings -- and keeps her henpecked grandson Wilfred (Paul Chequer) in camp disguised as a girl, to the endless amusement of Elsa's pal Georgie (Lily Tomlin), an acerbic lesbian archaeologist.
Events more or less unfold: Elsa breaks Luca's heart, falls in love with a studly Italian scoundrel (Paolo Seganti) and finally must flee for her life from the Gestapo. Arabella organizes the women to save San Gimignano's priceless art and architecture from both the Nazis and the Allies, at considerable risk to themselves. But it all transpires amid a sort of cheerful haze, with occasional expository mentions of the Jews or quotations from Churchill serving to remind us that truly bad things are indeed happening, somewhere out there. I'm not suggesting there's anything dishonorable in this, only that it makes for a lazy and pleasant but not awfully memorable movie. For all I know, the 76-year-old Zeffirelli will make many more movies, but "Tea With Mussolini" has the unmistakable feeling of a personal testament. Its sunny disposition and modest wit are well-suited to the genial temper of this born entertainer.