Tea with Mussolini

Italy/UK 1998

Reviewed by Andy Medhurst


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Florence, Italy, 1934. Mary Wallace, one of a group of elderly expatriate Englishwomen nicknamed the Scorpioni, finds herself looking after Luca, the illegitimate son of her employer, after the boy's mother has died. Rather than abandon him to an orphanage, Mary decides to raise Luca, assisted by the other Scorpioni, including their self-appointed leader Lady Hester and the artistic but disorganised Arabella. Hester is dismayed by a visit from Elsa, a rich American-Jewish socialite, whom Hester regards as intolerably vulgar. However, Elsa sets up a trust fund for Luca before leaving Italy.

As the fascist regime tightens its hold, public-order disturbances prompt Lady Hester to contact Mussolini himself. He invites her to Rome for tea and reassurances, a gesture Hester attributes to her status as a diplomat's widow, but which is really a publicity stunt. Luca's father sends him away to school in Austria. When he returns years later, Italy is at war with Britain and the Scorpioni have been interned. Elsa secretly pays for the Scorpioni to be moved to more comfortable quarters. Covertly, she helps Italian Jews out of the country and enlists Luca in her mission, though his willingness to help dwindles when he sees Elsa becoming involved with a local lawyer, Vittorio. After Pearl Harbor, Elsa is also interned and Luca discovers that Vittorio is scheming to steal her wealth and send her to her death. Luca and the local partisans help Elsa escape. Allied troops liberate the town and the Scorpioni are freed.


Submerged under an avalanche of divas, costumed and art-directed to within an inch of its life, swathed in sentimental music and explanatory intertitles which make it feel like the third-best film of 1954, and boasting a moment where Maggie Smith stops a Nazi soldier from shooting Judi Dench by shouting, "Stop this nonsense at once", it's safe to say that Tea with Mussolini is not uncamp. Not so much a date movie or a chick flick as a film for the perfect evening out with your ageing gay uncle, it serenely glides along as if the last 30 years of cinema history had never happened.

All of which lends it a certain reprehensible charm. Franco Zeffirelli is 76-years-old after all, and to expect him to modify the well-plumped plushness of his early middlebrow hits would be churlish. This is an old man's film or, to be precise, an old queen's film, awash in a rapt savouring of stellar femininity and endearingly predictable in its casting of inept but decorative young men. The plot takes elements from Zeffirelli's own childhood but embroiders them into a wider fabric by introducing fictional characters. The figure of Elsa, for example, is an invention, but who can blame Zeffirelli for wanting Cher in his young life, particularly a Cher dressed to the hilt in a succession of beyond-drag gowns?

The difference between Cher and the theatrical British cast's acting registers is deftly turned into a plot device, placing the clash of outlooks between their characters at the narrative's core. Smith does her party piece of pinched imperious haughtiness, Dench floats about twitchily like Sandy Dennis playing Isadora Duncan and Plowright embodies no-nonsense maternal dependability. Cher has little trouble slipping into the role of glamour personified, prompting an awestruck Italian to ask, "Are all American women as exciting as you?" "Alas," she replies, timing the pause to perfection, "no." Her later switch to doughty freedom fighter makes some demands on our incredulity, but she does pull off a to-die-for last scene, gorgeously stoical and irresistibly Garboesque as the partisans' boat rows her to safety.

Buried beneath the film's satin surface are some gestural attempts at addressing questions of sexual politics. The presence of lesbian archaeologist Georgie (played by Lily Tomlin as if she were auditioning for the role of Indiana Jones) signifies this, as does the curious subplot which sees Lady Hester's nephew Wilfred dressed as a woman to escape detection. When the strain of this becomes too much, he strips off, shouts (not with masses of conviction), "I'm a man," and runs away to join the partisans, instantly sprouting stubble in the process. The trouble is that he looks immensely more convincing in the first kind of drag than the second, implying perhaps that while anti-fascist guerrilla subversion may be a fine and noble cause, it's never as important in a Zeffirelli film as the swish of an epigram or the cut of a frock.


Riccardo Tozzi
Giovannella Zannoni
Clive Parsons
John Mortimer
Franco Zeffirelli
Based on the autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli
Director of Photography
David Watkin
Tariq Anwar
Art Directors
Carlo Centolavigna
Gioia Fiorella Mariani
Alessio Vlad
Stefano Arnaldi
©Medusa Film spa/Cineritmo srl/Cattleya srl/Business Affair Productions Ltd
Production Companies
A Medusa Film/Cattleya, Cineritmo (Rome)/Film and General Productions (London) co-production
Executive Producer
Marco Chimenz
Associate Producer
Pippo Pisciotto
Production Supervisor
Pino Butti
Production Co-ordinator
Sara Rossi
Production Manager
Alessandro Loy
Unit Managers
Marco Olivieri
Rizia Ortolani
Location Managers
Erika Gherardi
Deborah Gherardi
Post-production Supervisor
Alistair Hopkins
2nd Unit Director
Daniele Nannuzzi
Assistant Directors
Pippo Pisciotto
Justin Muller
Roberto Tatti
Luciano Bacchielli
Luigi Spoletini
Filippo Fassetta
Script Supervisor
Angela Allen
Emma Style
Mirta Guarnaschelli
Silvano Spoletini
ADR Voice:
Louis Elman
Script Consultant
David Sweetman
Camera Operator
Mark Moriarty
Digital Effects
The Film Factory at VTR
Digital Effects Producer:
Simon Giles
Digital Effects Supervisor:
Alan Church
Digital Effects Artists:
Dave Sewell
Sally Clayton
Special Effects Supervisor
Giovanni Corridori
Costume Designers
Jenny Beavan
Anna Anni
Alberto Spiazzi
Chief Make-up Artist
Franco Corridoni
Chief Hairdresser
Maria Teresa Corridoni
Titles Design
Janice Mordue
General Screen Enterprises
Music Performed by
Orchestra di Roma
Music Producer
Claudio Messina
RTI Music
Sound Engineer
Fabio Venturi
Music Mixer
Steve Parr
"Mattinata Fiorentina" by D'Anzi, Galdieri, performed by Alberto Rabagliati; "Sulla carrozzella" by Filippini, Morbelli, performed by Odoardo Spadaro; "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by Jerome Kern, Otto Harbach, performed by Cher; "Tulipan" by Maria Grever, Morbelli, performed by Trio Lescano; "Creole Clarinet" by/performed by Keith Nicholls; "Stomping at the Ritz", "Moonlight Magic" by/performed by Alan Moorhouse
Production Mixer
Brian Simmons
Re-recording Mixers
Gerry Humphreys
Dean Humphreys
Craig Irving
Supervising Sound Editor
Mike Wood
Sound Effects Editors
Steve Schwalbe
Mark Auguste
John Bateman
Colin Ritchie
Richard Fettes
Animal Trainers
Pasquale Martino
Marco Billeri
Judi Dench
Joan Plowright
Mary Wallace
Maggie Smith
Lady Hester
Lily Tomlin
Charlie Lucas
Luca, as a child
Baird Wallace
Massimo Ghini
Paolo Seganti
Michael Williams
British consul
Mino Bellei
Paul Chequer
Paula Jacobs
Tessa Pritchard
Claudio Spadaro
Bettine Milne
Hazel Parsons
Helen Stirling
Kathleen Doyle
Gianna Giachetti
Signora Badaloni
Chris Larkin
Major Gibson
Giovanni Nannini
Pino Colizzi
Dino Grandi
Jack Basehart
Count Bernardini
Giacomo Gonnella
Clemente Abete
Roberto Farnese
Chris Tattanelli
Claudia Piccoli
Allan Caister Pearce
American dealer
Herman Weiskopf
German officer
Benedetta Magini
Giulia Meyer
Beppe Landini
Giuseppe Rossi Borghesano
Marcellina Ruocco
Ferdinando Ferrini
Professor Cassuto
Massimo Salvianti
leading Fascist
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
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tbc minutes
Dolby digital/Digital DTS Sound
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011