Zeffirelli's long-planned semi-autobiographical feature finally makes it to the screen after a 25-year gestation. He admits to embellishing the truth: in the film the young Luca is actively involved in the resistance movement, while Zeffirelli was more of a bystander.
But the truth behind the movie is far more fascinating, considering that the old ladies who raised Luca did exist (although the characters here are more like composites of their real-life counterparts). They lived in awe of Mussolini and fought to protect Italy's heritage, refusing to return to England when war broke out. One of them even had tea with the dictator, and none of the militants ever laid a finger on "the Scorpioni", as the women were known affectionately by the locals.
Zeffirelli has assembled a dream cast of character actresses to play these ladies: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright obviously delight in playing the ring leaders of the dotty Lilac Brigade. But newcomers Charlie Lucas and Baird Wallace, who play the younger and older Luca respectively, have a hard time making their presence felt against such artillery, especially after the entrance of Cher as a brash scene-stealing American - a role she was born to play. She gets to be everything from vulgar to heroic and, naturally, is allowed to wear the best clothes and remain immaculately made up throughout.
This is a rose-tinted view of the conflict that tore through Italy. The ladies themselves are never in any real danger and running the resistance seems so trouble free you'd think the Fascists were merely having a laugh. The bad guys are easy to spot and even the authentic-looking Mussolini is presented more like a cuddly teddy who just wants to give those funny ladies a bit of excitement. That said, Tea With Mussolini is still entertaining, offering a fascinating account of an Italy which no longer exists.