Casablanca. An American in Paris. The English Patient. Ah, the romance of being an expatriate. Of course, what makes it so romantic is the element of danger involved, particularly if you choose to go abroad with a global war threatening or actually raging. Rick Blaine was smart enough to remove himself to a place where the bad guys couldn’t touch him… but what could American and Brits sunning themselves in Italy in the late 1930s have been thinking? Can Florence be enchanting enough to risk life and limb?
Playing with fire
Men: can’t live with ’em, can’t leave ’em by the side of the road. So says a friend of mine. But that’s precisely what Mary Panton does — leave a man by the side of the road, that is — in Up at the Villa, one of those movies about the surprise of suppressed passion bursting free that I can never get enough of.
He is Rowley Flint (Sean Penn: Being John Malkovich, The Thin Red Line, who’s looking more like Robert DeNiro every year), an American playboy whose “intentions are always dishonorable.” He knew, the moment he laid eyes on Mary (Kristin Scott Thomas: The Horse Whisperer, Random Hearts) at a dinner party in 1938 Florence, that they were meant to be together. But she is not prepared to have her calm, comfortable life disrupted by this rogue, however charming he may be. A widowed Englishwoman who has retreated to a villa outside the city, she clings to the trappings of upper-class life despite the crushing debt left behind by her husband. And she has every intention of accepting the marriage proposal of her old friend, Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox: Mickey Blue Eyes) — she’s not in love with him, but she likes him, and more importantly, he’s about to be named the governor of Bengal. The lifestyle will suit her. Rowley has ignited something in her, true, but she knows how her alcoholic gambler of a husband twisted her deep love for him. “I don’t want love,” she tells Rowley. “I’ve only known the humiliation of it.”
The political situation around Mary mirrors her own emotional turmoil. The Italian Fascists strive to keep a neat, orderly world — their request that foreigners register with the local police is greeted with polite applause by the expats; tea and sandwiches are served. But the rough, volatile domain the Fascists are trying to contain, that of poor workers desperate for jobs and the refugees from Nazism pouring over the borders, will not give in quietly. Mary attempts to straddle line between aloofness and excitement when she befriends an Austrian refugee and art student Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies: Ravenous, Saving Private Ryan, a wonderfully wistful actor), but she learns that confusion and disorder will out, that you can’t play with an emotion like desire without someone getting hurt.
Playing with fire, though, is exactly what everyone in this “viper’s nest of intrigue and betrayal” is up to, and typically with unhappy results. When Mary meets Lucky Leadbetter (Derek Jacobi), her friendship allows him back into an expat community that has scorned him. Invitations to dinner parties now only remind him, though, that his best years are behind him — aging and lonely, Lucky tries to catch the eye of a handsome young waiter, only to be ignored. Jacobi, a veritable god, makes this moment one of the saddest I’ve seen recently, and turns a tiny role into a disproportionately memorable one. Likewise, American Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft: G.I. Jane, Home for the Holidays) tells Mary tales of a husband with whom she was not in love and the beautiful lovers she took, but her story will have a bittersweet end as well.
As with movies like The End of the Affair, Up at the Villa will probably speak most to those who know how painful love, which should be the most wonderful of emotions, can be, and how frightening it can be to give in to a passion that threatens to be uncontrollable. “What’s life without a little risk?” Rowley asks Mary. “That’s what it’s all about.” But what prompts Mary to leave Rowley on the side of the road in the first place is the suggestion that instead of marrying Edgar, she wait for someone who “makes every nerve in [her] body stand on end… makes [her] mouth dry” — someone like Rowley himself. It’s the most powerful moment in the film, for Mary as well as for me, because she and I both know how perilous passion, however vital and necessary, can be.
A child’s eye view
Tea with Mussolini shares an historical backdrop with Up at the Villa, but not the latter’s harnessed intensity. A story of coming of age in a dangerous time, loosely based on director Franco Zeffirelli’s autobiography, this film opts instead for charm and gentle irony, much more suited to a tale about the importance of love and honor and the necessity of teaching such things to a child.
In 1935 Florence, the “age of great dictators” almost certainly encompasses Hester (Maggie Smith: The Last September). Widow of a one-time British ambassador to Italy, the imperious, self-important Englishwoman is putative speaker for the “scorpioni,” the gaggle of her fellow countrywomen who stay in Italy for the works of art and the history all around them. A fan of Mussolini and the order he has brought to the streets of Florence, Hester poses happily with black-uniformed guards in the street for English newspaper reporters and disdains “dreadful,” vulgar Americans like Elsa (Cher), the Broadway star turned rich man’s wife and art collector, and her friend Georgie (Lily Tomlin), archeologist and — shockingly — open lesbian. “Flagrant immorality,” Hester sniffs, and she doesn’t think much better of doughty Mary (Joan Plowright) and flighty Arabella (Judi Dench: Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown), who’ve adopted a young Italian boy, Luca (Charlie Lucas, and later as a teen, Baird Wallace), like some kind of “stray dog.”
Mary had been hired by a Florence dressmaker, Paolo (Massimo Ghini, who’s also in Up at the Villa), to teach Luca — his illegitimate child, with whom he and his wife want nothing to do — to be a “perfect English gentleman.” But when Luca runs away from his orphanage in search of his mother, whom he doesn’t realize is dead, Mary takes pity on him and takes him in. She and her friends make the adorable child their project, seeing him to school and feeding him in turn, and imparting him with the wisdom of their years: Mary introduces him to Shakespeare, Arabella to sculpture and painting, Georgie to sports and digging for artifacts.
A sudden shift in the national policy of the Fascists, however, is all it takes for Paolo to declare, in his broken English, that “England is finish,” and decide that his son must now be a proper German gentleman. Luca disappears to boarding school in Austria, and when Mussolini declares war on Britain and France in 1940, Hester and her cohorts are rounded up and “taken in custody.” When the teenage Luca returns to Italy to find his English friends prisoners in all but name, the lessons they’ve taught him about being a decent human being — unlike his cad of a father — will bear fruit to the benefit of all.
Tea with Mussolini is not as dire and serious as it sounds. Bittersweet humor abounds, from young Luca’s sweet delight at his first meal of bacon and eggs, in Mary’s comfy flat, to 22-year-old Wilfred (Paul Chequer), who disguises himself as a woman as the urging of his aunt, Hester, in order to join them in safe “custody” rather than be sent home to join the British army. And Maggie Smith delicately sends up the upper-crust English lady she typically plays in the scene that gives the film its name. Using the credential of her husband’s name as an entrée, she finagles an invitation to Mussolini’s office — prior to the declaration of war on Britain, naturally — to extract his promise that foreigners in Italy are safe. (He gives it, but later reneges on it, the rat.) Afterward, the young guards who attempt to serve tea are so inept at the task that Hester shoos them aside and takes command — of the tea tray, at least — in the very office of one of the most powerful men in world. The finesse with which Smith handles the scene proves what a treasure she is.
This isn’t a perfect film: the plot moves in fits and starts, dragging at times, and some of the characters, particularly Wilfred and Georgie, don’t get as much attention as they deserve. But the cast is uniformly wonderful, and there simply aren’t enough movies about older women who live life to its fullest to dismiss this one out of hand.
Up at the Villa
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for thematic elements