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IN SHORT: For those who could care less about Star Wars, and far better than the arthouse circuit that it's probably heading for. [Rated [PG], 117 minutes]
One look at the list of star names at the top of this page and you may have had the same initial reaction that Cranky did when he saw the black and white on a printed page. Tea With Mussolini suggests by its very name that it is a perfect match for the blue haired brigade. Cranky isn't talking punks, he's talking grandmothers and old folks. Even the presence of Cher, whose work runs just as cold as it does hot, on the list wasn't an incentive. Nor does Cranky hit the art house circuit to see foreign films, though the name Franco Zeffirelli is not unknown to him.
If it bore the label name Miramax, there wouldn't be much thought about considering a ticket purchase, but MGM? In the last five years, excluding the Bond flicks, that once upon a time A-level studio hasn't kicked out a watchable flick. Well, Surprise ladies and gentlemen, the lion has finally roared. Tea With Mussolini is a fine, fine flick. Much better than the top of the line arthouse flicks, the characters in this story are all deep enough that almost anyone outside of teenhood could take in this flick and walk away having enjoyed a good story.
Opening in the pre-World War II rise of Fascist Italy, we meet a trio of old ladies, the core of a group of English expatriates living in Tuscany (Northern Italy) , determined to save art and culture from modernity. Top dog of this crew is Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith), widow of the English ambassador who represents the egotism, pomposity, patronizing and self-important behavior of the fading Empire. Both she and the artiste-tic Arabella Delancey (Judi Dench) are blissfully ignorant of the realities of Fascist politics; Hester herself is patronized by Il Duce when she goes for tea, to inform him of the dreadful mistake his blackshirts have made in messing up the cultured English lifestyle. As War intrudes and the Brits find themselves locked away in a hotel in San Gimignano, Hester believes it is Mussolini's intervention that is keeping them in their lifestyle. She's wrong.
Third Brit player is the only dame that bothers to learn the language, Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright). The most moral of the lot, it is Mary who takes in Luca (Baird Wallace and Charlie Lucas), the bastard son of her Italian employer and it is their love and his loyalty to the old ladies that brings us to the second part of the story, set in the midst of the War. It is here that the two Americans introduced earlier become more important: Lily Tomlin as Georgie the archeologist who is tolerated by the Brits because her work allows them to contribute to the "saving" of culture and Cher as the incredibly rich and free-spirited Elsa -- she marries 'em old and runs with the inheritance.
Of the five ladies, two dislike each other intensely (which will lead to some interesting revelations in the third act) and one is a Jew (and this being WWII, we all know what that means). To tell anymore would ruin the delightful play of all the characters involved, and I haven't even mentioned Hester's grandson who suffers a fate which is, for most men, worse than death.
The only flaw in the film is that Luca, who appears to be about nine years old when he first appears ages close to a decade in the five years between the first and second half of the story. Nothing that will bother you, but something Cranky noted in passing.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Tea With Mussolini, he would have paid...
As you hit the end of Tea With Mussolini, the destiny of each character is put onscreen. If you wonder about Luca, who grows up to be "a filmmaker with a contribution to this film" that's Zeffirelli. Though not his lifestory, the character and incidents within Tea With Mussolini are all expanded from real events in his life.
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