Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama Ladies in War: Tea with Mussolini and Paradise Road

Ladies in War: Tea with Mussolini and Paradise Road

World War II is a fascinating  and fruitful period to make films, though it’s also terribly difficult to succeed in depicting such a monumental and complex time in history without exploitation, trivializing the subject or glossing over the horrors of the time. A great thing about a multi-facted part of history like WWII is that there are often stories not very well known that can be uncovered and dramatized: case in point, showing the war through the eyes of women. Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road (1997) and Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini (1999) are two examples of films that show the effects of war on women. There is a marked difference in that Beresford’s is a gritty and disturbing story of women interned in a Japanese war camp — while arguably not as horrific as the Nazi concentration camps, the women did suffer unimaginable atrocities, some of which made into the script. Zeffirelli’s tale is a fluffy trifle that has a decidedly more sanitized outlook of the war.Beresford, an Oscar-nominated director most famous for his 1989 hit Driving Miss Daisy, takes an oft-ignored story of WWII that takes place when Japan takes over
Singapore. The women interned are of diverse backgrounds — many of them British or American, and though rigid class and racial differences exist, predictably a bond builds as the women must face the cruelty of their captors. A novel way they maintain some semblence of order and sanity is the women start a choir, much to the perverse delight of the Japanese soldiers. The discipline and the routine help the women keep theri wits about them, and it also strengthens their friendship. Their bond is often tested, most graphically when one of the prisoners is set abalze for an infraction. The leader of the choir is a musical scholar, Adrienne Pargiter (Glenn Close, Reversal of Fortune, Fatal Attraction), who recognizes that the best chance for survival for the women is for them to remain united. She is supported by an impish British missionary, Daisy Drummond (Pauline Collins, Shirley Valentine) and a beautiful American woman (Julianne Margulies). The cast also features Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, The AviatorTea with Mussolini is quite different in tone — a sort of Enchanted April for the late 1990’s. Franco Zeffirelli’s alter ego Luca is a young boy who is being raised by a band of British women dubbed the scorpions. Luca’s surrogate mother is Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright, Enchanted April), a kind-hearted woman who worked for his absent father. She is joined by a band of friends, including a teary amateur artist, Arabella (Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love); Georgie Rockwell, a gay anthropologist (Lily Tomlin); Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith, Gosford Park) and former-showgirl Elsa Morganthal (Cher, Moonstruck). The women live in the Tuscan countryside, and view the war, initially as little more than a nuisance. Lady Random especially feels that Benito Mussolini won’t let anything happen to her, because of his promises (the title refers to a lunch Lady Hester had with Il Duce). Of course, Mussolini reneges on his promise and the women are arrested when England and the
United States enter the war, yet because of Elsa’s anonymous generosity, they all still manage to live in style in a luxury hotel. There are plot twists that provide dramatic force for the film – Elsa is Jewish and could get into trouble with a man she is dating – though for the most part, the movie simply glides along and for the most part, skirts the horrors of war.  

Paradise Road

is a better movie than Tea with Mussolini because it best represents the reality of World War II. Mussolini, at times, comes off as an old MGM-WWII weepie that was mass-produced during the war to drum up sentiment and pro-American morale. Zeffirelli seems to want to do the same thing Roberto Benigni did with Life Is Beautiful – he wanted to make a humane comedy about the War. It’s when Zeffirelli strays away from the sometimes-forced whimsy that the movie does shine. A great example would be a scene where the British women are being taken away after it’s announced that
England has entered the war. At one point, Georgie, a prickly character sees her friends loaded on a bus, and quietly blinks back a few tears – it’s a tiny moment, but a moving one that illustrates the indignities of war, no matter how minor.  

Even though I would recommend Paradise Road first, Tea with Mussolini has the superior cast – it just has to contend with an inferior script. Glenn Close does her dependable, spotless performance as the rebellious choir director, while Collins twinkles in her supporting role. However, the other women, including Marguiles and Blanchett aren’t nearly as impressive, and the movie starts to take the feeling of a documentary.  

Tea with Mussolini has a great cast of Academy Award winners and nominees, all doing some of their best work. Plowright is wonderful as the gentle Mary – she’s the only level-headed character in the film, and even in moments of great anger, she still manages to exude kindness. Dench is also good, though her character is written quite drearily, as she tears and bawls throughout the film. Smith, predictably steals scenes with a crackling wit, and of course is gifted with the film’s best one-liners. Tomlin is hilarious, though as mentioned earlier, is up to the more emotional scenes, as well.
Cher, looking gorgeous (despite her construction site face lift), is most memorable, playing the frivolous and flamboyant Elsa.  

Neither Paradise Road or Tea with Mussolini are classic films. With the former, you’re sure to learn something, and you may come out a better person. With the latter, you won’t get as much emotional truths, but you’ll certainly be entertained more.

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