Tea with Mussolini - rated - STONE COLD

Tea with Mussolini begins as the story of a boy called Luca who grows up in the shadow of Mussolini's Fascist regime. But Luca's story is also the story of the director, Franco Zeffirelli. The screenplay for the film was written by Zeffirelli together with John Mortimer, and is "based on" Zeffirelli's memoir. The words "based on" suggest that it is a partly fanciful reminiscence.

Zeffirelli has assembled all the elements necessary for a heartwarming story of a boy's coming-of-age in a magical place, but against the sinister background of Fascism and war. He's engaged some of the premier English actresses of our time: Dame Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright play a group of English ex-pats living in Florence. Then he's given us Cher and Lily Tomlin in the roles of madcap Americans. We have gorgeous locations in Tuscany, the art and architecture of Florence and San Gimignano, a cute little boy and an even cuter little dog. We have the stunning fashions of the 1930s, contrasted with the black-shirts of the Fascisti. And we have World War 2 going on somewhere in the wings. How could Zeffirelli miss? It's his own story.

But he does miss - big time!

Somehow we fail to connect. The stories of all these people - the young boy, unwanted by his father, growing up in the care of the Englishwomen, their dangerous foolishness, their animosity to the American eccentrics, the imminent danger of the Fascists, the plight of the Jewish, the shadow of war - all these things pass us by without touching us as they should. Why?

I'm reminded of Vittorio de Sica's great The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. There's a similar setting in northern Italy, a similar atmosphere of a paradise threatened by war and repression. It, too, was the story of privileged people - this time Italians - who ignore the rise of the Fascists for as long as possible and then are forced to confront it. That film was deeply affecting, and communicated absolutely the tragedy of paradise lost and the folly of ignoring the signs of change. Zeffirelli's film never even approaches that kind of emotional depth.

Certainly there's a problem with the script. First, it seems schizophrenic: it's almost possible to identify the bits written by Mortimer and the bits Zeffirelli wrote. Secondly, it seems as if Zeffirelli didn't trust his own story, and spiced it up with fictional details which serve only to distract us and lure the story away from the child, Luca, towards the English and the Americans, who are largely stereotypes (and it is here that I detect the dead hand of John Mortimer).

Then the performances are patchy. Joan Plowright works hard, but too often Zeffirelli falls back on close-ups of her doe-like eyes to communicate the emotion of her scenes. Cher does prettty well with a difficult role that is part glamorous clothes-horse, part whore and part Madonna. The other characters, though, are drawn like cartoons and even the formidable talents of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith can't breathe life into the stereotypical foolish Englishwomen they're playing. Lily Tomlin appears to have wandered in from another movie altogether. Tessa Pritchard, a talented comedian, makes a hash of her role as Connie, the reporter. The two boys (Charlie Lucas and Baird Wallace) who play Luca as a child and as a teenager appear curiously disengaged. It seems that Zeffirelli, whose talent has always tended more to the visual side of things, did not guide his child-performers well enough.

Was Zeffirelli too close to his material? Perhaps. Maybe he just didn't trust his own story. What he's given us is not a story but a pastiche, full of stereotype and cliché. And it's a shame, because ultimately this is a story of trust and betrayal, of foolish women putting their trust in unworthy men. It's also the story of a life lived in extraordinary times, and that's one worth telling.