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Franco Zeffirelli, the flamboyant creator of screen and opera-house spectacles, excels at period reconstruction. His Tea With Mussolini begins in 1935, the year of the Fascist attack on Abyssinia, and climaxes with the Allied victory in World War II. In freely adapting a chapter from his 1988 memoir, Zeffirelli: An Autobiography, he lavishes attention on evocative details—tea services, millinery, vintage automobiles, an art deco villa—without indulging in the musty, museum-piece fetishism that renders Merchant-Ivory productions so lifeless. But he and co-scenarist John Mortimer can’t get a handle on their meandering, overstuffed narrative. The story chronicles the filmmaker’s coming-of-age relationships with a group of eccentric, strong-willed, artistically inclined English and American women living in Florence and attempts to juggle their individual storylines. Leapfrogging from year to year and subplot to subplot, the film contains enough holes to fill the Albert Hall.

The opening sequence holds considerable promise. Clad in elaborate pastel dresses and sporting lace-trimmed parasols, a procession of mature, sharp-tongued British expatriates known as “the Scorpioni” makes a pilgrimage to the graveside of poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning. During this outing, we’re introduced to Zeffirelli’s surrogate, young Luca Innocenti, the endearing illegitimate son of a dress manufacturer and one of his designers.

Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright), Luca’s father’s factotum, agrees to adopt the boy and raise him as “a perfect English gentleman” with the aid of her sister Scorpioni, Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith), the haughty widow of a diplomat, and Arabella Delancey (Judi Dench), a dog-loving aesthete. Two Americans—Elsa Morganthal (Cher), a generous, uninhibited ex-showgirl who uses her wealthy husband’s fortune to assemble a collection of modern paintings, and Georgie (Lily Tomlin), a lesbian archaeologist—intermittently provide additional help.

Zeffirelli’s sense of continuity is distractingly slipshod. During the 10 years depicted, Luca moves from boyhood to late adolescence (Charlie Lucas and Baird Wallace share the role), but the Scorpioni don’t seem to age at all. For them, time stands still, and, in some cases, it even runs backward. In her final scene, Mary looks much younger than she does in her early sequences, and Arabella’s beloved mongrel Billyboy, a mature mutt in his first appearance, remains unchanged at the fadeout.

Given the stellar cast, one has every right to expect a display of enthralling ensemble acting. But Zeffirelli typecasts his leading ladies in roles that mainly serve to remind us of previous, more incisive performances. The celebrated English actresses are called upon to do little more than dust off their trademark mannerisms.

Paradoxically, Cher makes the least accomplished yet most fascinating contribution. With her face surgically altered to a permanent pucker and plastered with spectral makeup, she’s an unearthly presence, stiffly tottering about rather like Mae West in Myra Breckinridge. The weirdness of her appearance yields unexpected moments of silent-movie eloquence, especially when, abandoned by her treacherous chauffeur-lover, she’s reduced to a state of tearful despair. But whenever she attempts to open her mouth, her sloppy diction and hoarse, clueless line readings whisk us through time and space to beautiful downtown Burbank. She doesn’t quite know what she’s doing—which makes her more intriguing to watch than her prestigious colleagues, who largely phone in the hackneyed roles they’ve been assigned. Especially Tomlin, who has no other function except to pop in every half-hour or so for a sniggery dyke joke.

Although Tea With Mussolini runs just under two hours, the pileup of underdeveloped characters and conflicts grows exhausting: Fascist uprisings; a Romeo and Juliet puppet show; rivalries among the Scorpioni; the enforced internment of resident aliens; romantic jealousies and betrayals; underground resistance efforts; and, of course, Lady Hester’s titular repast with Il Duce. In the final reels, Zeffirelli stages some of the clumsiest battle sequences I’ve ever witnessed, then frantically struggles to tie up the loose threads of his narrative. (He’s unwilling to let go even during the closing credits, where he provides printed postscripts detailing the subsequent fates of his protagonists.) Surprisingly, no casualties are inflicted in this interminable wartime cavalcade, with the possible exception of restless viewers who, unlike Zeffirelli, know when to call it quits.

Australian comedy, like that nation’s table wines, offers robustness at the expense of subtlety. Writer-director Rob Sitch’s The Castle is a live-action cartoon, a farcical little-man-against-the-system fable awash in sarcasm and sentimentality. The movie’s brevity (it runs just over 80 minutes) and antic spirit make it endurable if considerably less than laudable.

Michael Caton stars as Darryl Kerrigan, a house-proud, family-loving tow-truck driver. The house in question is a ramshackle bungalow built on a toxic landfill yards away from the Melbourne Airport runway, and the family, three sons and a daughter, an assortment of devoted, vaguely retarded layabouts. When the Australian government orders the Kerrigans and their neighbors to evacuate their dwellings to make room for a projected airport expansion, Darryl, whose home is his castle, decides to stand firm. Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora), his ludicrously inept attorney, fumbles the initial legal challenge, but thanks to the unlikely intervention of a benevolent deus ex jurisprudence, retired constitutional law expert Lawrence Hammill (Charles “Bud” Tingwell), things go better with a Supreme Court appeal.

Director Sitch and three collaborators blend Frank Capra populism with Dogpatch caricature in a screenplay that is at once celebratory and contemptuous. We’re manipulated to cheer for the Kerrigans’ David-vs.-Goliath battle while snickering at their tacky proletarian lifestyle: their home’s false chimney and plastic Victorian gingerbread trim; wife Sal’s plebeian cookery and kitschy craft projects; the family’s makeshift holiday retreat in a setting as forbidding as its workaday residence. These gentle barbs dimly echo the no-holds-barred satire of Dame Edna Everage, who, dripping with honeyed maliciousness, long ago launched the definitive assault on working-class Aussie vulgarity.

As patriarch of “the luckiest family in the world,” the genial, mustachioed Caton infuses high-principled Darryl with sufficient dignity to counterbalance his absurd Panglossian optimism, and even grants his character a momentary flash of moral insight. Faced with eviction, he muses, “I’m really starting to understand how the Aborigines feel.” But Sitch’s insistence that viewers forget everything they have ever learned about economic, political, and class realities in order to accommodate a hailstorm of happy endings is, finally, too hard to swallow without exiting the theater feeling insulted and mildly mauled.

The Castle’s patronizing strategy has obviously paid off. Before Miramax acquired the movie for American distribution, this low-budget project—shot in 11 days in Super 16 mm—became 1997’s highest-grossing Australian movie. It’s doubtful that the film will enjoy as much success in this country, because we don’t elevate bubbas and snopses to the status of national heroes. Presidents, yes, but not heroes. CP