Cher, Judi, Lily Face Il Duce
A quintet of wonderful actresses, a richly evocative story set among the frescoes and Renaissance sculptures of Florence on the brink of World War II, and a chapter from the autobiographical memoirs of distinguished filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, add up to an uncommonly rapturous cinematic experience in Tea With Mussolini . If it doesn’t exactly achieve the epic grandeur or universal, historic significance of a David Lean spectacular, it is still a film to cherish.
Supposedly a true story, the screenplay by acclaimed British novelist John Mortimer and director Mr. Zeffirelli tells with sensitivity and affection of Luca, the illegitimate son of a seamstress and a married businessman. Luca’s mother dies, leaving the money she has earned in the safe hands of a zany American client and ex-Ziegfeld showgirl (played with panache by Cher) who dallies in free love and modern art by Picasso and Léger, making her an object of vulgar ridicule by the arrogant, snobbish British expatriates who live with reverence among the Florentine ruins of another era.
Luca is disowned by his father and abandoned to the care of these eccentric British ladies, called the ” scorpioni ” for their biting wit. Joan Plowright is a spinster who teaches him Shakespeare, Judi Dench is a failed artist on a mission from God to protect Italian artifacts for future generations against all threats of war, and Maggie Smith is an aristocratic widow of a former diplomat who naïvely believes she enjoys the personal protection of the Italian dictator because of her most treasured possession–a photograph of her enjoying tea with Il Duce himself. Colorful and strong-willed, these surrogate mothers take it upon themselves to raise and fashion the orphaned Luca into a perfect British gentleman. Add to this bizarre group of guidance counselors a butch lesbian American archeologist named Georgie (Lily Tomlin, in one of her saltiest wise-cracking roles), and the stage is set for a most unconventional adolescence.
In 1935, Luca is sent to Austria to study German by his fascist father, who pretends to care about the boy at a safe distance while his wife calls Luca ” bastardo! ” on public streets. The situation grows dangerous at home, although the ladies remain undaunted in their adopted Italy, still blind to the reality of Nazi storm clouds over the green hills and fertile valleys of Tuscany. Il Duce falsely reassures members of the British colony that they have political immunity, but by the time Luca returns in 1940, England is in the war and his beloved ” scorpioni ” are arrested as “enemy aliens.” When the dictatorship cracks down on the Jews, things turn equally black for the hedonistic showgirl (Cher), who loses her villa, her money and her priceless art collection to her Nazi lover, and both she and the hard-boiled Georgie join the others in detention, facing possible death. Now it is up to Luca (played by handsome teenage newcomer Baird Wallace), who risks his life and spends the inheritance reserved for his future education to rescue the beloved women who raised him.
If we are to believe Mr. Zeffirelli’s childhood memories, some of the most renowned and revered Renaissance cathedral frescoes in Florence were saved during the Nazi invasion by a group of oddball women in tattered lilac chiffon who chained themselves to the towers of a church to defy the German bazookas. Farfetched as it seems, it makes for one of the most moving scenes in recent film memory. By the time the town square is liberated by Scottish bagpipes and a regiment wearing kilts, tears are guaranteed.
Richly textured and filled with the kind of awesome scenery that takes the breath away, Tea With Mussolini is a fascinating story that consistently seizes and holds the audience captive, and you may never see so many great actresses sharing the screen again. Judi Dench may be giving the performance of a lifetime on Broadway in Amy’s View , but on film the delicate glow behind her eyes lives up to everything you have read or heard about her artistry. Ms. Plowright as the goldenhearted voice of reason and logic among the frightened women is simply marvelous. Ms. Smith as the imperious, selfish and implacable
dragon cuts an imposing figure. Ms. Tomlin and Cher are undeniably contemporary even in period costumes, looking more like they’re ready for tea with Elton John than with Benito Mussolini, but they are no less formidable in their sincerity and commitment than the others, adding atmosphere, wit and a sense of drama to the trajectory of diversity and danger. Mr. Zeffirelli directs them all miraculously, to give a sense of change and flamboyance among the timeless ruins.
Let the critical vultures pick apart this film like carrion if that is their desire. For me, its brave, proud depiction of the bonds of loyalty and love between generations in a time of war is a more moving parable to the invincibility of the human spirit than the arch, pretentious and largely preposterous Roberto Benigni film Life Is Beautiful . In an age of blasting digital effects and ballistic budgets, this warm film about real people with big feelings is a welcome relief from nihilism and ugliness. To Mr. Zeffirelli and his lovely, joyous accomplices, deserving roses all around.
Bring Back Boris Karloff
The Mummy was doing just fine as a classic 1932 horror film brought occasionally back to life from its resting place on the shelves of video stores. Dragging it to the big screen with goofy special effects, pounding noise and a campy screenplay that spoofs its original intentions pretty much stamps out what life it had left, in a pointless farrago of confusion and silliness. Bring back Boris Karloff in Ace bandages.
You know the lurid tale: Imhotep, an evil high priest who defiled the Pharaoh’s mistress in 1719 B.C. in the Egyptian city of Thebes, is buried alive in a sarcophagus filled with flesh-eating scarabs. Three thousand years later, in the 1920’s, his rotting corpse comes back to life after his crypt is opened by treasure-seeking adventurers, and the putrid old thing goes on a rampage.
This time, the object of his affection is a prim, perky British librarian (Rachel Weisz), and the hero who saves her from a thousand fates worse than death is a brawny, indestructible American legionnaire out of Gunga Din (Brendan Fraser) who has come across a map of the underground tombs where the ancient pharaohs hid their treasures. She’s looking for a priceless book. He’s looking for adventure. Their sidekick, who is the girl’s doofus brother (John Hannah), is looking for jewels.
What they find is the dreaded Imhotep, who looks like a computerized Creature From the Black Lagoon in monster form and Telly Savalas when he turns human. Once awakened, this mean-spirited creep with 3,000 years of halitosis follows them back to Cairo, raining fire, breathing plagues of locusts and seeking human sacrifices. With all of its camel caravans galumphing along to desert sunsets, shootouts, explosions and mayhem, the hokey video-game effects were better used in Indiana Jones and the story’s sinister sexual implications are sanitized to the point of tedium. There isn’t one thing in it as bleak and scary as the Karloff original, and the laughable mummy himself was more of a handful when he met Abbott and Costello.
Do Re Mi , One Last Time
Do Re Mi , the season finale in the popular, sold-out “Encore!” series at City Center, made up for the disappointing production of Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 that preceded it by accomplishing what this run of neglected, forgotten or never-should-have-been Broadway musicals set out to do in the first place. It provided a second look at a second-rate flop concocted by first-rate pros and gave it a fresh kick in the pants for a delighted audience that never saw it the first time around.
Produced in 1960 by David Merrick as nothing more than a vehicle for the hilarious sparring of Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker, Do Re Mi had a sloppy book by Garson Kanin and some terrific tunes by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The story of a fast-talking, big-thinking loser and his long-suffering wife who get their 10 minutes of fame in a get-rich scheme to skim the profits of the music industry, by rigging jukeboxes with the aid of some Damon Runyonesque crooks who discover and market new talents under the guise of their own record company, is dated as a dodo. But Nathan Lane and Randy Graff stopped the show continuously while the romantic roles of their competitive music mogul and the Zen Pancake Parlor waitress who becomes a recording star (originally played by John Reardon and Nancy Dussault) were wisely changed to black roles (acted and sung to perfection by Brian Stokes Mitchell of Ragtime and libidinous, throaty Lion King star Heather Headley), lending a dramatic and timely slant to a tired subplot.
The absurd “acts” they came up with, with auditions that could only be envisioned on The Gong Show , were delightfully cameoed by veteran clowns Marilyn Cooper, Gerry Vichi and Tovah Feldshuh. What a treat to hear “Make Someone Happy,” “Fireworks,” “Cry Like the Wind” and the gorgeous “I Know About Love” dusted off with such style and paprika. Classy staging by John Rando threaded the disjointed elements together briskly. We won’t be seeing this one revived on Broadway unless they change a Senate investigation of jukebox tampering into a scandal about the Internet, but seeing it once was a charm.
Typos and deletions in last week’s column made a mess of my reviews of the coming-out films Get Real and Edge of Seventeen . Ivan Lins’ lyrics to “Evolution” should have read “Drive a mile through solid granite,” not “Drive awhile through solid granite.” The gay student played by Brad Gorton was the school jock, not the school joker. My point, deleted by space problems, was that with world leaders organizing summits on how to bring diverse people together for purposes of tolerance and peace, with the taunted, enraged and alienated kids in the Columbine High massacre leveling aggression at their community for not fitting in, with the recent headline-making cases of “fag bashing,” and with other violent acts as tragic reminders of prejudice, the positive messages in both films are doubly palpable. Finally, I correctly identified Sean Connery as the screen’s most sexy and durable “sexagenarian,” which was mysteriously changed to “septuagenarian,” aging Mr. Connery by a decade and insulting Paul Newman. My apologies to all.