Arriving just after Mother's Day, "Tea With Mussolini" ("Te con Mussolini") has Italian auteur Franco Zeffirelli taking a page from his diary to honor five of the most important women in his life. The film is a somewhat fictionalized account of Zeffirelli's youth in Italy at the brink of the Second World War.
Disowned by his promiscuous clothing-manufacturer father, bastard child Luca (played by Charlie Lucas) is taken in by his father's secretary (Joan Plowright).
While the disowning of the boy is cruel, Luca is molded as he comes of age by the love and guidance shown him by the Scorpioni, a group of witty Englishwomen. Along with Plowright, the group includes Judi Dench as a fresco painter; Lily Tomlin as a lesbian archeologist; Maggie Smith as a wild-eyed biddie; and Cher as a Jewish-American art dealer. The story is told first though Luca's eyes as a child and then as a teen-ager (played by Baird Wallace).
If Plowright serves as the school teacher, then Cher -- surely the most exotic albeit ersatz Jewish woman to grace the screen -- serves as the Madonna figure, delivering life's stinging lessons directly to Luca's defenseless soul. Smith provides comic relief and constant comment as the crazy, disapproving auntie. In less defined roles, Oscar-winner Dench is all but unrecognizable from her queenly role in Shakespeare in Love, and Tomlin seems to be hanging around just to wear khaki pants and smoke cigars.
Adapted by screenwriter John Mortimer and Zeffirelli from the director's memoirs, the film is stronger in its performances than its plot, which makes living though the Nazi siege on Florence seem like little more then an inconvenience with a few dashes of intrigue.
Zeffirelli plays cavalier with revisionism, leading Luca to become a brave messenger for the resistance; in real life Zeffirelli was not so heroic. Other scenes let reality flag and are too sugar-coated, particularly when Cher, stripped of her fortunes and furs, makes a near-Wagnerian escape by boat.
Forgiving these gaps as flights of memory, Zeffirelli succeeds in evoking the lives of his five mothers as unique individuals. And, considering the sepia ambience of the film, one suspects this is what he set out to do.