[Screen It]


(1999) (Cher, Joan Plowright) (PG)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Mild Minor Extreme Mild Moderate
Mild None Mild None Mild
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
Mild Mild Mild Mild Moderate

Drama: A group of British and American women tend for a young boy and deal with the winds of war while spending time in Italy during the 1930's and '40's.
In 1935 Florence, a group of British women -- known as the "Scorpioni" for their biting wit -- has made the city their own, and despite the rumblings of unrest and early signs of war, they believe they have no reason to worry. After all, Lady Hester (MAGGIE SMITH) the group's eldest and most aristocratic member, is certain that Mussolini, whom she met through her late husband, the former British ambassador to Italy, is a close personal friend of hers.

Her real friends, Arabella Delancey (JUDI DENCH) and Mary Wallace (JOAN PLOWRIGHT), pay her no heed since the former is too involved in the city's frescoes and art, while the latter has recently semi-adopted a young boy, Luca Innocenti (CHARLIE LUCAS).

Knowing that his mother is dead, and since his father, her boss, Signora Badaloni (GIANNA GIACHETTI), wants no personal contact with the boy, Mary lets him stay with her while teaching him about life through Shakespeare's works. Others join in helping to raise the boy as well, including Arabella who teaches him about art, and Americans Elsa Morganthal (CHER), a former Ziegfield dancer and current and flamboyant modern art collector and Georgie (LILY TOMLIN), an irreverent lesbian archeologist.

Despite Lady Hester arranging to have tea with Mussolini and receiving his personal assurance that no harm will come to them, the ladies and Luca realize that the tides are changing. As several years pass and Luca (BAIRD WALLACE) returns from school now as a young man, and a smooth-talking local lawyer, Vittorio (PAULO SEGANTI), has swept Elsa off her feet, they must all accept that war has broken out and that they're now enemies in their former adopted city.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast, it's highly unlikely.
For thematic elements, language, brief nudity and some mild violence.
  • CHER plays a flamboyant American art collector who helps the other ladies despite Hester not liking her. She cusses some, as well as smokes and drinks a bit.
  • MAGGIE SMITH plays the snobbish aristocratic lady who dislikes the Americans and pompously believes that her minute association with Mussolini is all she needs to survive.
  • JOAN PLOWRIGHT plays a woman who semi-adopts Luca and tries to raise him as best she can.
  • JUDI DENCH plays an art lover who hopes to protect important artwork from the ravages of war.
  • BAIRD WALLACE plays Luca as a young man, a generally good guy who gets jealous of Elsa's interaction with other men and joins the Italian resistance movement helping smuggle people from Italy during the war.
  • LILY TOMLIN plays an irreverent lesbian archeologist.


    OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
    There's little doubt that events in a person's past -- especially their childhood -- have shaped and molded, for better or worse, who they've later become. This is particularly true for filmmakers whose works often incorporate or reflect those past experiences and show how they've affected their personal and artistic views of the world.

    Director Paul Verhoeven has stated in interviews that the graphic violence in his films such as "Robocop" and "Total Recall" stems from growing up in his war-torn homeland, and there's little doubt that Quentin Tarantino's stint working in a video store where he was exposed to cinema's past helped shape his films' snappy dialogue and visual and verbal references to classic movies.

    All of which leads us to "Tea With Mussolini," a film loosely based on the childhood life of its director, Franco Zeffirelli, and in particular, his memoirs, "Zeffirelli - An Autobiography," published in 1988. Named after an interesting, but rather short and ultimately less than compelling moment in the picture (especially considering the title), the film is a mildly enjoyable, if greatly fragmented picture that's fortunately filled with a great cast.

    Since Zeffirelli takes a great deal of self-admitted artistic license with his past -- a point I should remember when I make a film about my life and how I was a child billionaire who gave it all away just so that I could review movies for parents -- one will never know exactly how much influence his past had on films such as his Oscar-nominated version of "Romeo and Juliet" or the more recent adaption of "Hamlet" (with Mel Gibson & Glenn Close).

    While the film never readily promotes that it's autobiographical -- except in the closing "whatever happened to" credits -- such knowledge not only makes one question the validity of what occurs, but also makes one think of the character played by Jon Lovitz in past episodes of "Saturday Night Live" who would say, "Yeah, that's the ticket!" when making up facts about himself.

    All of which may explain why most of the Italian guards/soldiers often seem like such pussycat softies. While it's possible that not all on the "wrong side" of the war were bad, and acknowledging that scenes where the ladies reprimand or defy such guards make for audience pleasing moments, they often defy credibility. Had the film been played more as a comedy, such scenes might have held up better, but as it stands they're somewhat problematic.

    Presented as a drama with some meager comic underpinnings, others may have problems with the fact that the film never really captures the horrors of the war that serves as its story's constant backdrop and instead treats it more like a nuisance or mere plot catalyst. While that goes along with the notion of the women either being so stubborn or ignorant of truly understanding what's coming down the pike, so to speak, it doesn't work as well as say, Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," that perfectly portrayed a superficial and purposefully lackadaisical approach to war.

    That nitpicking aside, the film, like many others that try to cover a wide span of years, often feels too episodic for its own good. While John Mortimer's screenplay generally moves along in a straightforward, chronological manner from the seeds of fascist unrest to the full-blown war -- covering a decade or so -- the film never fully worked for me nor engaged my emotions into the proceedings.

    Everything's certainly nice to look at, thanks to Oscar winning cinematographer David Watkins ("Out of Africa"), but I constantly felt like I was watching a series of vignettes -- some good, some mediocre -- instead of an all-encompassing, cohesive picture. Others, of course, may be drawn into and enjoy every bit of it, and the fact that the film has a great ensemble cast of past Oscar winners and nominees clearly doesn't hurt matters.

    From Maggie Smith (a winner for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and "California Sweet") and Joan Plowright (a nominee for "Enchanted April") to Judi Dench (a winner for "Shakespeare in Love" and a nominee for "Mrs. Brown"), the performances are great and each actress nicely delineates their respective characters.

    The odd person out -- somewhat purposefully done since her character is in the same situation -- is Cher. While the contrast of her age and character nationality (not to mention the nearly career- killing move to "star in" infomercials) instantly set her apart from her fellow performers and their characters, once one accepts the intentional incongruity, she seems to do a fine job (which shouldn't come as a surprise since she also won an Oscar for her work in "Moonstruck").

    Supporting performances from the likes of comedienne Lily Tomlin ("9 to 5," and yes, another Oscar nominee for "Nashville") and newcomers Charlie Lucas and Baird Wallace (who play director Zeffirelli's alter-ego) are also solid.

    The superb cast and performances aside, I simply wish the film did for me. While it was moderately interesting to watch at times, I often found myself bored, distanced, and certainly never captivated nor really compelled to root for the characters to overcome their predicament. As such, this decent, but not great picture gets a 5.5 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the content found in this PG-rated drama that few kids will probably want to see. Profanity is mild with only a handful of curse words and religious phrases being used. A brief, but long shot of a naked man walking from a bed occurs (but only shows the side of his bare butt and from a long distance), although it's somewhat implied that he and a female character have been intimate. Another character is identified as a lesbian, but beyond some playful glances, nothing ever comes of that.

    Several characters exhibit bad attitudes, although the German and Italian officers/soldiers are depicted in a mostly positive light. A few brief images of war are seen and there are several related moments that may be a bit suspenseful to some viewers. Beyond all of that and some smoking and social drinking that also occurs, the rest of the film is relatively tame in regards to major objectionable content.

    As always, however, should you still be concerned about the film's appropriateness for you or anyone in your home, you may want to take a closer look at the listed content.

  • People drink champagne.
  • Hester and others have drinks.
  • People have champagne with dinner.
  • People have champagne at a reception thrown by Elsa.
  • Elsa has a drink.
  • People have drinks while Elsa and Luca have champagne.
  • People drink at a New Year's Eve party.
  • The ladies have wine while working to protect some famous paintings.
  • Some soldiers drink wine.
  • A man's head is bloody after he's been cut by flying/breaking glass (very briefly seen).
  • Luca's father has both for considering him to be a "bastard child" and wanting no direct contact with him (and even saying/acting so in front of the young boy). He also has Mary, his assistant, quit because having an English woman working for him wouldn't look good in Italy.
  • Badaloni's wife comes after Luca (as a young boy), telling him that he should be afraid because "I'll get you."
  • Young kids on the street shoot spit balls (or something similar) at and briefly harass several older English ladies.
  • Fascists have both for terrorizing/harassing non-Italians in prewar Italy.
  • The Italian and German soldiers/officers have both for being on the wrong side of the war, and for condemning Jews.
  • Hester has a snobbish, elitist attitude toward the Americans.
  • Elsa stands up Luca for a dinner she promised.
  • A character arranges for the arrests of other characters and then takes advantage of Elsa, essentially stealing all of her belongings and money.
  • Scenes listed under "Violence" may also be tense to some viewers. In addition, the overall theme of the pending war may be unsettling to some.
  • Badaloni's wife comes after Luca (as a young boy), telling him that he should be afraid because "I'll get you."
  • The women are taken off by guards (but only, it turns out, to a deserted barracks, and not concentration camps like some may believe will happen).
  • On a "run" for Elsa, Luca is stopped by some soldiers/police who briefly interrogate him.
  • As Hester's grandson realizes he can't stand continuing to disguise himself as a woman, he reveals his true identity in front of guards, much to the dismay of his grandmother and the other ladies.
  • Luca walks through an open field toward soldiers hidden in the bordering tree-line, not knowing if they're friend or foe.
  • Soldiers prepare to blow up several towers and a German officer nearly shoots one of the women.
  • Rifles/Machine Guns/Tanks/Canons: Seen and used during war scenes (with the smaller weapons often carried by guards/soldiers). See "Violence" for details.
  • Phrases: "Idiot," "Bastards" and "Shut up."
  • Young kids on the street shoot spit balls (or something similar) at and briefly harass several older English ladies.
  • Some people burn the British flag.
  • None.
  • A mild amount of suspenseful music occurs in several scenes.
  • None.
  • At least 3 damns, 2 hells, 1 S.O.B., 1 crap and 4 uses of "G-damn," 3 each of "Oh my God" and "My God," 2 of "For God's sakes" and 1 use of "God" as exclamations.
  • Some classical statues show nudity (including male full frontal).
  • It's brought up that Georgie is a lesbian, but beyond some playful glances, nothing ever comes of that.
  • We see Vittorio and Elsa in bed together talking, with her in her nightgown and him being shirtless. When he later gets up (which is seen from a long distance across the room and as he stands sideways to the camera), he's obviously nude and we see the side of his bare butt.
  • Georgie alludes to one of the younger women having had sex with many guys (commenting on her going after anyone wearing pants).
  • Vittorio smokes several times, as does Elsa and a younger woman. Meanwhile Luca smokes once and several miscellaneous or background characters also smoke (in more than five scenes).
  • We learn that Luca's mom is dead (as does he after thinking she's just "gone"), and that his father considers him a "bastard child" and wants no direct contact with him.
  • Mary mentions that her father and fiancÚ both died in the "great war."
  • Why Luca's father wants nothing to do with his son.
  • The historical context of the film's setting and the overall rather gentle depictions of both the Italian and German soldiers/officers.
  • A band of young men/soldiers, working under mob mentality, breaks windows in a restaurant (resulting in a man suffering cuts on his head).
  • More mob members push a man aside and then throw the ladies' belongings out the window. One tries to throw Arabella's dog out as well, but Georgie attacks him and must then be pulled off him.
  • Some people burn the British flag.
  • Artillery fires on approaching tanks during a brief battle scene and some explosions knock soldiers to the ground.
  • Soldiers prepare to blow up several towers and a German officer nearly shoots one of the women. As those soldiers leave, one of them fires a machine gun above the women's heads, hitting the wall behind them.

  • Reviewed May 8, 1999 / Posted May 14, 1999

    Other new and recent reviews include:

    [1917] [Bombshell] [Cats] [Little Women] [Spies In Disguise] [Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker] [Uncut Gems]

    Privacy Statement and Terms of Use and Disclaimer
    By entering this site you acknowledge to having read and agreed to the above conditions.

    All Rights Reserved,
    ©1996-2020 Screen It, Inc.