- Released: 1999
- Director & Story by: Franco Zeffirelli
- Stars: Dame Joan Plowright (Mary Wallace), Dame Maggie Smith (Lady Hester Random), Cher (Elsa), Dame Judi Dench (Arabella), Lily Tomlin (Georgina “Georgie” Rockwell)
- Rating: PG
- Length: 1 hr. 57 min.
- Awards won: BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role; Best Costume Design
Cher’s Arm Chair Travel to Italy
I love Italy! The opportunity to travel to Italy three times and absorb its art and architecture, history, culture, and landscape has been a highlight of my life. This movie provides something for the lover of art, the lover of history, the traveler, and is a great introduction to the intoxicating culture of Italy.
I discovered the film “Tea with Mussolini” as we prepared to lead our first group of students and adults on an educational trip to Italy. Viewing this movie continues to be a required pre-trip activity to help our travelers get a feeling and excitement for what they will be experiencing in this fascinating country. Critics consider it to be one of the top movies set in Florence to inspire Italian travel adventures.
The story is set in Tuscany, Italy in the 1930s just as the winds of war are descending on Europe; Italy is under the fascist dictatorship of Franco Mussolini. The key actors include five women: three British and two Americans. The proper but eccentric, elderly British women, dubbed by the Italians as “The Scorpioni” have chosen Florence as the ideal place to live as expatriots to blend their love of Italian art and culture with their British sensibilities. The flamboyant, brash American women add flare and color to the scenario. A young Italian boy lends a thread the helps connect all the pieces throughout. As World War II progresses into the 1940s, their cultivated lives take a dramatic turn when Allied forces declare war on Mussolini.
The visual bounty of scenery, the heart-warming story and the award-winning cast of characters all add to the enjoyment and make it one of my all-time favorite films.
Above all, I believe that the real star of the film is the art!
The movie opens with iconic scenes from Florence one can experience today, much as it was during the mid-20th century–and centuries ago when it was ruled by the powerful Medici family. In Florence, one can still experience what seems to be endless great art: Michelangelo’s jaw-dropping “David,” Botticelli’s flowing “Birth of Venice,” Giotto’s towering Campanile (bell tower) next to magnificent Duomo (cathedral) and Ghiberti’s bronze baptistery doors, dubbed “the Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo.
The Ponte Vecchio, the fascinating bridge lined with quaint, expensive, little shops, connects the city across the Arno River. From the core of ancient Florence, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi courtyard one can access the immense Pitti Palace and lush gardens on the other side. Silhouetted against the setting sun and reflected in the water, today’s visitor can appreciate the magnificent scene as others have been since Florence was built.
(Not mentioned in the film, but relevant to the time period, during World War II, the Nazi occupiers were ordered to blow up the Ponte Vecchio. Fortunately, the bridge was saved by the intervention of an art-loving German consul; the buildings at either end were destroyed, leaving the bridge impassable but intact.)
Stunning architecture abounds in scene after scene in the film. The center of historical Florence is the breath-taking Duomo (cathedral) with its distinctive green and white marble. As I watched the film, memories of this indelible scene flooded my mind and I again walked these memorable streets with Mary and young Luca.
Mary Wallace (Dame Joan Plowright) is superb as the guardian for Luca, for whose father she worked. The close relationship of this warm, compassionate lady and the motherless boy, serves them both well throughout the story.
Florentine Culture is a visual bounty in the common Florence street scenes. Picturesque shops and food carts provide authentic settings in the movie, much as the visitor can experience today. One example is seen here with Mary and Arabella (Dame Judi Dench, “M” of Bond 007 fame), an aspiring artist and art lover with a bohemian flare for life.
The Uffizi Gallery, one of the top art galleries in the world, can be experienced in the film. Watch carefully and one can catch a glimpse of some of the museum’s most famous paintings and sculptures! These are some of my favorite film scenes as I fondly recall by own visits! In this scene, Arabella provides a drawing lesson for young Luca in one of the galleries. (More on the Uffizi Gallery in my Travel to Italy blog)
The Uffizi hallways overlooking the courtyard are the backdrop for one of the most moving and pivotal scenes of the film. The Nazis crash the afternoon tea party of our British women, violently heaving precious tea sets, along with priceless works of art, out these windows into the courtyard below. It is a turning point in the movie when the women begin to question their safety in Florence.
History buffs will appreciate the encounter of crusty Lady Hester Random (splendidly played by Maggie Smith) with Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini (Claudio Spadaro). Resting on the reputation of her late husband, an influential British ambassador to Italy, she travels to Rome to acquire the dictator’s assurance that Brits are safe in Florence. In a symbolic gesture of his supposed good word, he serves them tea, British style–hence the film’s title. The photo taken of them together goes viral. Her framed newspaper copy proudly accompanies her as she blindly holds onto his empty promise of safety. In the end, she too realizes she has put her trust in a man who cannot be trusted.
San Gimignano, a quaint medieval town near Florence, is central to much of the film’s scenes, shot on site. The 13 towers that dominate its skyline today are but a shadow of the 72 towers that were present at its feudal height of power. It is still breath-taking, transporting the visitor to enchanting Medieval fantasies. For the traveler, it should be on the “must see” list for places to spend at least a couple of hours.
The city’s courtyard, the Piazza Cisterna, is where the actual scenes and filming take place. Just off of this courtyard are the hotels where the women are held hostage by the Nazis . As the film climaxes, military tanks roll into this courtyard. It is here where we witness the liberation of the city by the Scottish Allied forces. This historical setting of World War II in the film–and the Medieval era of long ago–is one the modern traveler can still experience today.
San Gimignano is one of my favorite places to visit in Italy. It is rich in works of art as well as quaint shops, inviting restaurants, and numerous spots to imbibe in addictive Italian Gelato. I’ve visited the city twice; my first visit was most memorable! It was in late March. Snow filled the air and blanketed the ground as approached the city. Early in the season, many shops were not yet open. Those that were open–were very open! In fact, even in cold weather, the merchants kept their doors open to the narrow, winding streets. They beckoned us to come inside for warmth and light–and maybe a purchase! We gladly obliged! It was a great opportunity to visit with local people, pick up some souvenirs, sample local food and drink. The delicious thick, hot espresso is an experience I can still taste!
Arabella’s passion for preserving great art comes to life in San Gimignano as she seeks to save the priceless Ghirlandaio frescoes from impending Nazi destruction. One of the most compelling scenes in the movie is where she and her fellow prisoners tie themselves to one of the towers as the German’s toss bombs to blow them up.
(Sand bags are hoisted up and stacked against the wall to protect the frescoes. To do their job properly, sand bags need to be heavy; the women handle these as if they were filled with cotton balls! Interestingly, I didn’t notice that technical “oops” until my husband mentioned it! I was too busy looking at the frescoes, so it is not a major deterrent to the overall scene!)
The Americans play a significant role in the film. We witness how the British women, especially Lady Hester, view the two American women as loud and crass (they are). In the end, it is the generosity and forgiving spirit, seen in the lives and actions of Elsa (Cher) and Georgie (Lily Tomlin) throughout the movie, that radiantly shines through the darkness of the situation.
(I was reminded by my favorite history professor that it was the financial gifts of generous Americans who helped rebuild war-torn Europe after its destruction by our wartime enemies from those same countries.)
Georgie is an American archaeologist working on a dig near Florence; she is a good friend of Elsa. In truly comedic Tomlin style, she adds insight through her frankness and humor throughout the movie. While her sexual orientation as a lesbian is clear, and while I do not feel that it is needed to enhance the film, it is also not offensive to the viewer and maintains the guidelines of a PG rating. It does, however, provide additional fodder for the disdain of Lady Hester for these two colorful and loud Americans.
Elsa (exquisitely played by Cher) is a flamboyant, Jewish American, retired actress who loves art. Through her passion for the latest styles of art, including that of Picasso, we get a glimpse of the revolutionary new world of abstract art she has embraces and which fills her Italian villa. Luca, an aspiring art student whose love of art begin as a young boy with Arabella, now is introduced to this radical new style by Elsa. It, and Elsa, change his life.
Elsa is a philanthropic heiress, generous with her wealth to a fault. Behind the scenes, she discretely provides aid for not only the British women in their distress, but also Luca. His deceased mother once worked for Elsa as a dressmaker; she now wants to honor her by investing in his future.
While not having a huge speaking role, Luca provides a thread that ties everything and everyone together. His mother worked for an American (Elsa). His British guardian (Mary) worked for his father. Through their immense impact on his life, he is sympathetic to the Allied cause, which comes full circle at the end of the film
Early in the film, we are introduced to the young Luca (Charlie Lucas) who is going through some pivotal events in the life of a child.
Ten years later, Luca (Baird Wallace), returns as a teenager with direction in his life, reconnecting with this strange band of expatriates.
The movie is semi-biographical, based on the life of the film director, Franco Zeffirelli, making Luca, as the young Zeffirelli, a key part of the narrative. Born in 1922, Zeffirelli became a prominent Italian stage director, achieved world fame as the director of filmed major stage productions. He credits his interest in great art to his eccentric and wacky British and American mentors whose real life personalities were the inspiration for the characters in the film. In the final scenes of the movie, Zeffirelli pays his artistic and personal debt to the Scorpioni who taught him the difference between good art and bad art–and ultimately between good and evil.