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Tea With Mussolini (1999)

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Becoming a man in a world gone mad.

When it was first released, Niki and I saw Tea with Mussolini at the Drexel East theater in Bexley. The cast was simply wonderful, bringing a multidimensional story to life, complete with a whole set of characters of depth and realism.

The movie's official tagline is, “a story of civilized disobedience,” but I found myself focusing on rather a different part of the story, that of a young boy who became a man. The young boy, Luca, was the illegitimate son of an Italian businessman. With his mother dead and his father absent, Luca is raised by an Englishwoman, Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright), who is part of a group of English living it Italy just before World War II. Mary enlists help from her friends to ensure that the boy is taken care of. A wealthy American who sometimes lived among the English “Scorpioni,” Elsa Morganthal Strauss-Armistan (Cher), was a friend of Luca's mother and set up a trust for him.

Mary not only ensured that Luca was going to school and pursuing his studies, but she spent time with him, spoke with him, and instilled in him the values that would make him a proper English gentleman—apparently the only desire that his father had for him.

As Italy became increasingly aligned with Nazi Germany, the charming and peaceful existence in Florence gave way to incarceration for the Scorpioni, and a great deal of mystery surrounding Elsa. Luca was sent to an Austrian boarding school, as his father determined that Italy's future was not with England, but with Germany. After his studies, he returned to Italy, and soon found himself jealous of Elsa's Italian lover, deeply infatuated with her, and in her employ: secretly delivering documents that would allow their Jewish recipients to flee the country.

I was especially taken with the character of Mary; not only was she able to perceive what was right and wrong but she acted on it and worked good among those within her sphere of influence. Her strength, moral courage, and gentleness made quite a difference for young Luca. And he was wise enough usually to pay attention. Even after he had gone off to school and returned fully grown, Mary did not hold back from correcting him when he behaved badly. She became cross with him when his youthful jealousy blinded him; even so, in her reprimand, she offered him what he needed not just to understand that he was wrong but what he must do to correct his course. “What are your hurt feelings when there are lives at stake?”

Rather than stupidly insisting on pursuing his misstep, Luca wisely took the lesson; he not only quit complaining about being Elsa's “messenger boy” but also used the money that Elsa had years earlier put into a trust for him to help the resistance and to get Elsa to safety when her life was in danger. When the resistance asked where he got the money, he told Wilfred Random, Lady Hester's grandson, that the money was intended to help him grow up, but that it didn't help very much because he forgot the first rule of a gentleman: love thyself last.

“Love Thyself Last,” Shakespeare's Henry VIII
Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee;
Corruption wins not more than honesty.
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace,
To silence envious tongues. Be just, and fear not:
Let all the ends thou aim'st at be thy country's,
Thy God's, and truth's; then if thou fall'st, O Cromwell,
Thou fall'st a blessed martyr!

In his corrected action, Luca set aside whatever inconvenience and heartache he had, moving beyond them, taking action intended for more than just “to feel good” or “to have fun,” but to adhere to a principle that was important to him, one that was instilled, we presume, by Mary Wallace. It had an impact was both concrete and specific: it saved the life of a woman whose generosity with her fortune allowed him to be educated and raised in relative comfort. He acted well in the moment, and (as Johann Kaspar said) performed a good action to all eternity. Would that others thus behaved; what atrocities might have been avoided.

Tea With Mussolini is a delight, a story both worthy of consideration and a pleasure to do so.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-03-28 02:27 PM
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