THREE STARS - Uplifting
In the unexpected compassion of others, we often find the solace we need to survive tragedy. But when that compassion continues in spite of great personal sacrifice, it becomes a transforming power in our lives. This truth is wonderfully shown in Franco Zeffirelli’s autobiographical “Tea with Mussolini.”
Though the disclaimer at the end of the film explains that many of the characters and incidences are fictional, the power of the film rests in its authentic exploration of our capacity to care for one another.
As the name implies, this historical film is situated in Mussolini’s Italy, just before and during the second World War. Living in Florence is a community of independent women who have come from Britain and America to enjoy the culture of this beautiful city. Nicknamed the “Scorpioni” because of their “stinging” rudeness, this group is both tolerated and despised by the native citizens.
The central theme of the film revolves around the compassion shown a young boy whose mother was a seamstress for the Scorpioni women. Luca (Charlie Lucas as a child and Baird Wallace as a teenager) is the son of a womanizing businessman whose secretary is a Scorpioni named Mary (Joan Plowright).
Wanting Luca to become a British gentleman, Mary has been enlisted to teach him both manners and Shakespeare. When Luca’s mother dies, his thoughtless father places him in an orphanage.
When he runs away, it is Mary who returns him. As she sits waiting for the headmaster to come, she observes the other children in the orphanage. Though it is obvious that their physical needs are provided for, it is also obvious that each child needs the special love of a parent.
Unable to evoke compassion from Luca’s father, Mary agrees to provide a home for him. This act of compassion proves to be the beginning of a wonderful transformation not only in Luca’s life but in Mary’s as well.
This truth is presented the first night Luca is in her home and sees pictures of two British soldiers. When Mary explains that one is her father and one is her fiance, both of whom were killed in World War I, we begin to understand the sadness in her eyes. But when she shares her love and laughter with Luca, we begin to see a spark of joy return to her life.
This truth that compassion provides both the giver and recipient with the opportunity to find joy is further explored when the other Scorpioni women offer their unique abilities to help Mary provide for Luca. One example is Arabella (Judi Dench), an eccentric artist whose passion for art seizes Luca’s soul and inspires him to be an artist.
The power of compassion is further demonstrated when Elsa (Cher) arrives on the scene. Elsa is a flamboyant American actress whose wealthy husband has financed her art-collecting obsessions. Seen by the aristocratic British as ostentatious, Elsa seems to court their disdain.
But when she is informed that Luca’s mother has died, Elsa demonstrates a compassion equal to her wealth. She establishes a trust which makes Luca an independently wealthy man.
What is not known at the time of her generosity is that, during the upcoming war, her compassion will be returned to her when Luca is instrumental in saving her life by using the money to buy her freedom.
This mutual benefit is even more potently expressed when Luca and Elsa are alone awaiting the boat coming to take Elsa away to safety. Elsa explains to Luca that when his mother conceived him, his father had wanted her to abort his life against her wishes. But Elsa encouraged her to follow her heart and save him instead. And then Elsa says, “If I had not been there for you then, you would not be here for me now.”
Earlier, this mutual caring for one another is presented when Elsa secretly provides for the Scorpioni by paying for their hotel accommodations while they are taken into protective custody. Lady Hester, who had arranged for tea with Mussolini before the war began and had believed his promise to protect her, had also believed that the dictator was responsible for moving the Scorpioni from a basement prison to the luxury of this hotel. When she is told that it is really Elsa who has paid for them, she is humbled by Elsa’s expression of love, especially in the face of her own arrogance.
It is so easy for us to project good intentions on public figures whom we do not personally know. The truth is that often the most loving acts are done by those closest to us and we just don’t see them