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Tea With Mussolini

Noted Italian director Franco Zefferelli was prompted many years ago to make Tea With Mussolini by two events -- the completion of his autobiography, and the complaints of friends Maggie Smith and Judi Dench that there weren't any decent roles available for women over 45. Drawing from his own childhood memories in Fascist Italy, Zefferelli, in collaboration with novelist John Mortimer, wrote Tea With Mussolini in remembrance of the Scorpioni, a cloistered group of eccentric Englishwomen who expatriated to Florence and took him under their wing after he was orphaned as a small boy. John Plowright stars as Mary, the gentle English tutor who looks after young Luca (Charlie Lucas, Baird Wallace), Zefferilli's semi-autobiographical character, who witnesses the plight of the Scorpioni and links all of the major characters to each other, including Lady Hester (Smith), the widow of the former British ambassador, and Arabella (Dench), a struggling painter who has dedicated her life to preserving Tuscan art. Two American women are also part of Luca's world, globetrotting socialite Elsa (Cher) and art historian Georgie (Lily Tomlin), a duo that often battles with the snobbish Lady Hester but still becomes part of the Scorpioni fold as Mussolini leads his nation further and further towards war with Great Britain and America. With several interwoven relationships over the course of ten years crammed into two hours of cinema, Tea With Mussolini sometimes teeters towards information overload, and it's not hard to consider that this would be an even better film with another hour tacked on, if only to flesh out the complex characters and let these talented ladies entertain us even more. And while "chick-flicks" tend to be either too smug or too sentimental (even wartime ones), Tea With Mussolini never loses track of the story it has to tell. Zefferelli has an exceptional instinct for character-driven drama, bolstered here by both cinematographer David Watkin's spellbinding vistas of the Tuscan countryside and a marvelous score by Alessio Vlad and Stefano Arnaldi. Not just worth watching, but worth watching twice. Good transfer, DD 5.1, trailer, keep-case.

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