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‘Tea with Mussolini’ at the Shelter Island Library

‘Tea with Mussolini’ will be shown on January 19 as part of Movies at the Library.
‘Tea with Mussolini’ will be shown on January 19 as part of Movies at the Library.

It is a rare film that not only deserves repeated viewing but demands it. Such a film, “Tea with Mussolini,” is next at Movies at the Library, Tuesday January 19 at 7 p.m.

A 1999 Italian-British production written by John Mortimer and Franco Zeffirelli and directed by Zeffirelli, it is based on the latter’s own experiences as a youth in 1930s Florence. His mother has died and his father has all but abandoned him, leaving him in the nominal care of a group of ex-pats, British and American.

A comparison might be made to our own beloved Auntie Mame and, in this case, times five, but the Hollywood film presented a caricature of an aunt as a woman focused on herself. In this case, the “aunts,” surrogate mothers really, have much more depth and the connection each has to the boy is genuine and deep.

Not very much actually happens in the film. The coming of war has an impact on this community of women, known as the “Scorpioni,” so named because of their stinging wit, but they are determined to remain, come what may.

One of the women is sure that if only she can contact Il Duce, he will protect them. Will he, or won’t he? What effect will the war, when it comes, have on the ladies and their sheltered existence? But, as they say, all is not quite as it seems. So what is so compelling about this movie? It is what is compelling about life: people and how they cope.

These people are a delectable group and just knowing who portrays them makes it clear why two hours in their company is such a delight. From Britain, they are three Dames—Judi, Maggie and Joan (Dench, Smith and Plowright) and from America, “Dame”-if-ever-there-was-one, Cher and Lili Tomlin.

It is hardly necessary to sing the praises of the British dames but this film makes one wish there were more films with Cher. She is fabulous, no other word for it. She and Tomlin handily hold their own in this company. That Tomlin is now so busy in film and television is only cause for joy. And we relish the continuing work of Dench and Smith.

The film was not a critical success. Roger Ebert in Chicago and Stephen Holden of the New York Times found faults but both had to admit that it is a wonderful film with many charms. What’s better for a winter evening? Whether seeing it on January 19 is a repeat or a first time, you have a treat in store. We forward to seeing you at the movies!