Time With Zeffirelli


“There is something special about Jews,” the famed Italian director Franco Zeffirelli says, not disingenuously. “They have an instinctive compassion for their neighbor.”

The 76-year-old auteur illustrates the sentiment in his latest and most personal film, “Tea With Mussolini,” which may also be his personal best. Based in large part on his 1986 autobiography, the movie revisits Zeffirelli’s childhood before and during World War II, when he was an orphaned, illegitimate child adopted by a group of feisty expatriate Englishwomen and by a wealthy Jewish-American art collector in Florence.

The film stars theatrical grande dames Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith as the eccentric Englishwomen, and the inimitable Cher as Elsa Morganthal, the flamboyant American Jew.

Who else but Zeffirelli, best known for his lush 1960s adaptations of “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Romeo and Juliet,” could have cast Cher as the flashy Jewish adventuress who is oblivious to danger until she is nearly deported to a concentration camp?