Tea with Mussolini (1999)




Director:  Franco Zeffirelli

Starring:  Cher (Elsa Morganthal Strauss-Armistan), Judi Dench (Arabella), Joan Plowright (Mary Wallace), Maggie Smith (Lady Hester Random), Lily Tomlin (Georgie Rockwell), Baird Wallace (Luca), Charlie Lucas (Luca as a child), Massimo Ghini (Paolo), Paolo Seganti (Vittorio Fanfanni), Claudio Spadaro (Mussolini), Mino Bellei (Cesare), Paul Chequer (Wilfred Random, aka Miss Lucy), Tessa Pritchard (Connie Raynor), Michael Williams (British Consul), Paula Jacobs (Molly).

English women stay in Florence up to and during World War II


Good movie.  The year is 1935, Florence Italy.  The movie deals with the love affair between the artistically-inclined English community and Florence in the time of the rise of Mussolini and World War II. 

A group of English women gather around the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning led by Lady Hester Random, the widow of the former English ambassador to Italy.  Mary Wallace is watching the young Italian boy Luca.  The boy's unwed mother has died and his father does not want to raise the child because his wife would object.  The end result is that Luca is being taken care of by Mary and her English cohort in Florence.

These are rough times.  The fascist black shirts are starting to grow in numbers.  Lady Hester if very fond of Mussolini saying that he is a vibrant man who look like a Roman emperor and supports order and safety.  She ignores the remark that Mussolini has invaded Abyssinia.   When the black shirts cause a riot she and a reporter for the Morning Post get an appointment to meet with Mussolini.  They have tea together and the dictator tells them to have no fears; they are safe in Italy. 

But the situation becomes worse rather than better.  The black shirts chase the English women out of their usual meeting place at the  art museum.  Mary Wallace loses her job with Luca's father because she is a foreigner.  Since German and Italy are becoming allies, Luca now has to learn German and is sent off to school in Austria.  "The era of English is finished."

In 1936 there are more fascist demonstrations in the streets.  By 1939 they are burning the British flag.  And in 1940 the English women are told that they have to go back to England.  But many of the English ladies decide to stay.  Lady Hester tells them that Mussolini will keep Italy out of war.

Lucas returns from Austria and now is a young man.  He immediately seeks out Mary Wallace.

June 10, 1940.  Italy declares war on Great Britain and France.  Now the women are branded as "enemy aliens" and taken into custody.  They are forced to live in a dilapidated barracks in San Gimignano.  But soon they are sent to live in a nice hotel.  (Unbeknownst to Lady Hester, the wealthy American Elsa Morganthal Strauss-Armistan is secretly paying the bill.  Lady Hester does not care for Americans and least of all the brazen Elsa.)

December 7, 1941.  The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and America declares war on the Axis powers.  Elsa now finds herself and "enemy alien" and is placed in the hotel with the English women. 

It turns out that Elsa is in danger, one because she is Jewish, and second because her current Italian boyfriend is swindling her out of her fortune and wants her out of the way. 

What is to become of Elsa, as well as the English women, as the Allies start bombing and pushing into the area in order to force the German troops out of Italy? 

The movie has a bevy of very experienced female actors who are top-notch in their performances.  They are a very feisty group of females and fun to watch as they refuse to let themselves be intimidated neither by the Italians or the Germans. . 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


Florence is the capital city of the Tuscany region.  The city is considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance.  Long ruled by the Medici family, Florence is famous for its fine art and architecture.  During World War II, the Germans occupied the city for a year (1943-1944).

San Gimignano is located on top of a hill in Tuscany, Italy.  It is a small walled medieval village located about a 35 minute drive northwest of Siena and southwest of Florence.  It is famous for its medieval towers that can be seen for miles around.  The Communal Palace is now the home of the Town Gallery, with works by Pinturicchio, Benozzo Gozzoli, Filippino Lippi, Domenico di Michelino, Pier Francesco Fiorentino and others



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