Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fuel for the soul.

In a world where the news is, at best, depressing, and at worst, frightening, one can always take refuge in the arts. That is why I love film so much, a good film is fuel for the soul; it revives one’s spirit.

Noticing that Laissez Faire was selling copies of Franco Zeffirelli’s film Tea with Mussolini, I dug out a copy of it and refreshed my fuel supply. It is a lovely film, with a great message, subtly but eloquently stated.

The film follows the journey of a group of women—mainly English—in Florence, from just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War until the end of the war.

The stellar cast is a collection of some of the most fascinating females in modern film—at least by my standards. We are first introduced to Joan Plowright, playing Mary Wallace. Mary works for an Italian businessman who has fathered a child with his mistress, who is deceased. The son from that relationship is basically abandoned by his father and Mary, with the help of her circle of English friends, known as the Scorpioni, take him in.

The boy Luca, learns to appreciate art from the women but his father intervenes and sends him off to Austria. Smelling the shift in Italian politics he has fired Mary and sent his boy to a German school in Austria. As he tells Mary at her dismissal, the future of Italy is now with Germany, not with England.

Among the Scorpioni we met Maggie Smith as Lady Hester Random, the widow of a former British Ambassador to Italy. There is also Judi Dench, a failed artist who has a passion for preserving the great art of Italy. Rounding out the circle of main characters is Cher as the flamboyant, brash American art collector, Elsa Morganthal Strauss-Almerson, and Lily Tomlin, as the lesbian archeologist Georgie Rockwell.

The film shows the rising power of the Fascists. Ominous black shirts become increasingly violent. The Scorpioni are horrified but Lady Hester assures them that Mussolini is a gentleman. She arranges to meet Il Duce who assures them that they are under his personal protection—a lie that Lady Hester wishes to believe. But when war breaks out the Englishwomen are placed under custody.

Luca, now a young man, played charmingly by Baird Wallace, (who is now in IT work), returns to find Mary just as she and the Scorpioni are being moved. As Arabella (Dench) is being pushed into the bus for relocation the Fascist guards take her faithful dog from her. Mary yells to Luca “Take the dog please, look after her”. Luca snatches the dog up yelling, “Of course I will, we were puppies together.” He and a friend then follow the bus to find that the women are being put in custody in the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, famed for its ancient towers.

Elsa and Georgie, as Americans, are still free. Elsa gives Luca some money to make sure the women are housed at a small hotel, instead of in the barracks where the government had sent them. Lady Hester is convinced that it is her political pull with Mussolini that is responsible for this good fortune.

But it isn’t long before America enters the war and Elsa and Georgie are sent to join the women. Elsa, however, is at great risk since she is a Jew. Luca, who has begun to understand the nature of the conflict, and who had become bitter at Elsa because of a misunderstanding, joins the underground movement. Elsa had given Mary some money as a trust fund when Luca was just a boy. Luca takes his trust money and uses it instead to help fund the underground cell that he joins.

Betrayed by a lover who had conned her out of all her belongings Elsa becomes despondent. But the Gestapo has already begun arresting some Jews, precisely what Elsa’s ex-lover was counting on. Mary and Luca are unable to convince Elsa to escape, even though the underground has made passage for her to Switzerland. Lady Hester, who had always hated the brash American, learns the truth and goes to Elsa, convincing her to leave. She says they were a lot more alike than they cared to admit, they were both betrayed by bastards: Elsa by her ex-lover, and Lady Hester by Mussolini.

As the war draws to a close the Germans, in a hasty retreat, plan to blow up the towers of San Gimignano. The Scorpioni, led by Arabella, stand up to the retreating Nazis to save the towers. Outside the town, Luca finds a battalion of Scots ready to enter the town and joins them as an interpreter. As they are entering the town the commander turns to Luca and says: “I won’t be needing an interpreter for this job.” Luca asks about the job. The commander says he was told that a whole group of English ladies were kept in custody in town and that he has “orders to move them to a place of safety.” Luca, knowing what the Scots will be dealing with, says: “Actually, you might be needing an interpreter, sir.”

The commander responds: “Do you know the ladies.”
“Yes, very well, sir.”
“Don’t they understand plain English?”
“Yes, but they don’t understand orders.”

The underlying message of this film is not one that hits you over the head, but it is impossible to ignore. It is about tyranny and liberty, told through the lives of a small group of women caught up in a fascist dictatorship. The cast alone makes this film one worth watching repeatedly. And the script is witty and wonderful.

Tea with Mussolini is a charming film with a message. Often films on the dangers of authoritarianism rely upon the stark, dramatic violence and cruelty that one sees in these systems. That is easy to do. But the Scorpioni were isolated from such large dramatic events. Yet still the film portrays the darkness of the times in the lives of these women who “don’t understand orders.”

Tea with Mussolini is a film that I never tire of watching. I always leave it with a small tear in my eyes and with recharged batteries for my spirit. Get a copy and see for yourself.

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