Written by Zeffirelli and British playwright/novelist John Mortimer (TV's Rumpole of the Bailey), Tea with Mussolini is actually a coming-of-age story about a young, illegitimate Italian boy named Luca Innocenti whose mother has died and who is not officially acknowledged by his father. The boy (played as a 7-year-old by newcomer Charlie Lucas and at 17 by Baird Wallace, also making his feature debut) is adopted by a clan of strong-willed, eccentric English women known around Florence as the "Scorpioni" for their sharp tongues and abrasive manner.

The group includes the sensible and determined Mary Wallace (Plowright), who works part-time as a secretary to Luca's father and who enlists the other women in her scheme to save the boy from an orphanage; the imperious Lady Hester Random (Smith); and Arabella Delancey (Dench), a passionate advocate of all things artistic. Although they have chosen to leave England and live in Florence, the women remain obstinately British, refusing to learn Italian, insisting upon tea every afternoon and demanding a certain formal civility from everyone they encounter. Apolitical in the extreme, they also ignore the tensions rising in Europe.

The group also includes two Americans, Elsa Morganthal (Cher), a wealthy adventuress who was a friend of Luca's mother, and Georgie Rockwell (Lily Tomlin), an openly lesbian archaeologist. An inveterate snob, Lady Hester looks down on Americans, sniffing disdainfully, "It's amazing. They can even vulgarize ice cream."

The widow of a British envoy, Lady Hester has deluded herself into thinking that she has a special relationship with Mussolini. (The pivotal scene involving Hester's taking tea with the dictator was inspired by a true incident in which Violet Trefusis, the colorful English intellectual who lived for many years in a villa outside Florence, actually did meet the dictator.) The episode serves as a metaphor for the rampant illusion among the expatriates that the war would not touch them.

But the narcissism behind their refusal to see what clearly was going on in the world makes the film irritating in a way that Zeffirelli clearly did not intend. The war presented here is a sanitized version; nothing truly terrible happens to anyone. Even Elsa, who is Jewish, is blithely unaware of what is going on in Germany and the danger she faces. This lack of attentiveness makes the women look silly and petty, and the few war-related sequences, such as scenes of Luca and Lady Hester's nephew in the Italian Underground, don't seem the least bit authentic.

The film might have worked better if it had unfolded more through Luca's eyes. Zeffirelli apparently intended this to be the case -- he is the Luca character and actually lived much of the story -- but he hasn't pulled it off. Tea with Mussolini doesn't come close to John Boorman's captivating Hope and Glory, which managed to address the terrible destructiveness and misery of the war as well as the magical adventure it offered its young protagonist.

Opens May 14.
-- Jean Oppenheimer

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Adapted and directed by Michael Hoffman
A Midsummer Night's Dream came early in Shakespeare's career. He had written it by at least 1598, in roughly the same period as another lyric-romantic masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet. Despite Samuel Pepys' famous dismissal of Dream as "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life," it has always been among the most popular of English comedies -- with the exception of R&J, it may be the most frequently produced of Shakespeare's works. It's also all too frequently wrecked in production, either crushed under some labored directorial concept or choked into ridiculous insipidity by ersatz fairy dust.

The latter is probably the more ignominious fate that can befall it. Dream is, in part, a fantasy about fairies, which Disney has taught us to think of as cute, anthropomorphic fireflies. But many Elizabethans genuinely believed in these woodland sprites, and to them they were more complicated figures -- comical, sexual, potentially malevolent, certainly frightening. Shakespeare intends his Puck to be attractive, no doubt, but Tinkerbell he isn't -- his lines have a mysterious, manic edge.

One of the best of the many delights of Michael Hoffman's new film, William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is that he manages to have it both ways -- the gauzy fantasy and the bacchanal. Though the film is traditional enough in approach to employ Mendelssohn's incidental music -- as did Max Reinhardt's 1935 Hollywood version -- it is still an original. Like Kenneth Branagh's screen Shakespeares, this Dream could easily be underrated by highbrow critics as conventional, but it is so only on its vigorous, accessible surface. Hoffman, like Branagh, comes up with some truly inventive and startlingly valid interpretations on the level of characterization and mood.

Your heart may sink, for instance, when you see fireflies buzzing around under the opening titles, but that's not the whole story. When we finally get a look at the fairyland behind the glowworm disguise, the winged cuties drink and party (and orgy) in the company of more pungent mythological bogies like satyrs and even, in a cameo, the gorgon Medusa.

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