UK – USA – Italy / 1998
Writer and Director: Franco Zeffirelli (adapted by John Mortimer)
Cast: Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin
Set in pre-War ’30s Italy, Zeffirelli’s film centres on a group of elderly English lady expatriates (known as The Scorpioni) whose lives are transformed by the arrival of Luca, the illegitimate and orphaned son of the former employer of Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright).
She decides to raise the boy, aided by the haughty Lady Hester (Maggie Smith), the artistic Arabella (Judi Dench) and an occasional appearance by the glamorous (and comparatively vulgar) Elsa (Cher), a wealthy American socialite who sets up a trust fund for the young boy.
As Fascism begins to take root in the country, Hester takes it upon herself to contact Il Duce (Claudio Spadaro), who invites her for tea in an elaborate publicity stunt. Years later when the adult Luca (Baird Wallace) returns from an Austrian education he finds the Englishwomen have been interned, with Elsa playing a role in smuggling Jews out of the country. When she asks for his assistance, Luca is reluctant to help, but when he discovers Mussolini’s true intentions he finds himself to be the only hope for the women whose bravery and dedication gave him a better life…
The film does rely on a certain suspension of disbelief as, for example, in the scene where Nazis are halted by a British matriach urging them to “stop all this nonsense at once”, and men in drag can cast aside their frocks to join the partisans with a cry of, “I’m a man”, yet the performances restrain Zeffirell’s excesses, with Cher adding a touch of Garbo. Audiences agreed, with prime-time patronage from the likes of Rosie O’Donnell helping to boost American domestic take, and British audiences taking advantage of the film’s release during a particularly arid cinematic period and falling for the charms of this likeable period drama.