Tea with Mussolini a Gem on DVD

Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, Baird Wallace, Charlie Lucas, Massimo Ghini, Paolo Seganti, Paul Checquer. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (anamorphic), 1.33:1 (full-frame). Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround 2.0 (French). 117 minutes. 1999. MGM Home Entertainment 907918. PG. $24.98.

It's the late 1930s in Mussolini's Italy. In Florence, a group of expatriates chooses to stay, unwilling to abandon their art-drenched lifestyle. Most of them are British women of a certain age who have lived in Italy for years and are convinced that the Italian authorities would never harm them. One of them, the widow of a former British ambassador to Italy (played by Maggie Smith), even manages to arrange a meeting with Il Duce. This meeting, from which the title originates, convinces her that their position is secure. But an outcast boy whom the ladies help raise, a wealthy, extroverted American actress and art collector, and the advent of World War II throw their comfortable lives into chaos.

The story is a semi-fictional account of director Franco Zeffirelli's childhood (he is the young boy, a fact not made clear in the movie itself, nor need it be). Don't watch this film expecting an intriguing, unpredictable plot. The story is interesting enough, but by itself would be of only passing interest. The pleasures are in the character development and wonderful performances. Cher hasn't had this juicy a role in years, and she makes the most of it. Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith shine as polar opposites: Smith as the imperious, American-hating aristocrat, Plowright as the kind, art-loving secretary who can't resist taking into her home her employer's illegitimate, virtually abandoned son. Judi Dench is underused; she is typically peerless at what she's given to do, but you want to see her do more.

Zeffirelli is known for the look of his productions, and Tea with Mussolini does not disappoint. The period design is outstanding, from the art-gallery interiors to the sweep of the Italian countryside. David Watkins' photography could hardly be better, and is superbly rendered by an excellent anamorphic video transfer. (A full-frame version is also included on the other side of this dual-layered disc.) A few scenes are a little soft, but in general the detail is excellent, with no sign of artificial edge enhancement.

The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital mix is unspectacular but good. Action fans may not be overwhelmed—there are a few artillery bursts near the end of the film—but it's hard to raise any other objections. The soundtrack is clean, sweet, and pleasingly natural—exactly what this sort of film requires, and no more.

Extras are limited to a trailer, though the enclosed "Making of" booklet is reasonably informative, and more convenient than reading stationary text off a video screen.

Tea with Mussolini is one of those second-tier gems that get mixed reviews and are ignored at awards time. But it is definitely worth seeking out.