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TEA WITH MUSSOLINI

TEA WITH MUSSOLINI (A-2, PG): This autobiographical memoir, about an Italian boy befriended and tutored by grandmotherly English ladies in Fascist Italy just before World War II, is far off the usual 1999 movie menu. It mixes visual beauty, social nostalgia and satire, genteel femininity, and ironic period intrigues and heroics.

The boy (as well as the writer-director) is Franco Zeffirelli (now 77), who has become one of the century’s notable directors of opera and Shakespeare on both stage and screen, and especially of Catholic films. His Brother Sun, Sister Moon is an enduringly gorgeous tribute to the young St. Francis. And his Jesus of Nazareth TV miniseries has been the standard among Jesus movies for two decades. (It’s also widely accepted as closest to the Gospels.)

Zeffirelli uses Tea to explain himself and his artistic roots. His character, the boy Luca (played as a youth by Baird Wallace), is an illegitimate child neglected by his father and informally raised by a colorful coterie of women in the then-thriving British colony in Florence.

The women include his father’s kind secretary, Mary (Joan Plowright), who teaches him about theater and Shakespeare; the somewhat nutty Arabella (Judi Dench), passionate about both her dog and classical art; Lady Hester (Maggie Smith), a haughty ambassador’s widow who admires the vibrant Mussolini; the eccentric Jewish-American singer, Elsa (Cher), who collects modern paintings and wealthy husbands; and Georgie (Lily Tomlin), an American archaeologist.

The movie is an affectionate tribute to them, their kindnesses and peculiarities. It shows how they cope with their declining status from privilege to primitive treatment as wartime internees in the picturesque medieval town of San Gimignano.

Smith has the highlight scene in which she fawns over Mussolini in his over-the-top Roman palace. She provides abrasiveness, then repentance, in a reprise of her roles as a stuffy idealist brought to earth. She’s a natural foil for the much looser yet self-sacrificing Elsa. Beautifully acted and shot; recommended for mature viewers.

NOTTING HILL

NOTTING HILL (A-3, PG-13): Big shot and little shot meet and fall in love in this big-budget fantasy. But at least they do it with above-average charm, invention and detail.

While in the past it’s usually been royal meets commoner or rich meets poor, the century-end equivalent is famous meets anonymous. That would be movie megastar Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) and London bookshopkeeper Bill Thacker (Hugh Grant).

The gender dynamics are a bit different: the American Anna is aggressive, the British Bill is shy. But most of the humor comes when each invades the other’s turf. Anna goes as a date to a family-and-friends party where the guests are comically awed. (A guy asks her how much money she makes and she responds, “Oh, $7-15 million a year.”)

Bill visits her at the Ritz, where he’s mistaken for a room-service guy by her obnoxious movie-star friend (Alec Baldwin).

The Richard Curtis script, while not It Happened One Night, is also not Four Weddings and a Funeral, his sexually careless 1994 hit that turned most of the values of Western civilization upside down. The Brit characters are likable. There’s a modest effort to confront the difficulties as well as the joys of both fame and true love. The conversations actually have words in them, and the raunchiness factor barely registers. Romance-lite in pretty locations; satisfactory for mature viewers.

LIMBO

LIMBO (A-3, R) is another unpredictable journey into the territory of maverick 20-year veteran filmmaker John Sayles (Lone Star, Secret of Roan Inish), whose honors include a John D. MacArthur Award. His movies are about regular people, often in life-changing situations.

Sayles (48) and his main characters are mature. His attitude is realistic. His subjects are varied, and he has both cinematic know-how and the writing skills of a novelist.

In Limbo, set near Juneau in coastal Alaska, Sayles regular David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are 40-ish folks whose lives until now have stalled. She’s a singer (cruises and honky-tonks) and a single mom (with a troubled teenage daughter, played by Vanessa Martinez) who’s had bad luck with men. He’s an ex-basketball star and fisherman with tragedy in his past.

No sooner do they meet and click than they’re trapped with the girl (a symbolic family) on a remote island. They have to survive while fearing an attack by vengeful drug smugglers. The island is like limbo: “It sure isn’t heaven, it’s too cold to be hell, and purgatory has an end to it.”

The characters and dialogue are better than you’ll find in any mall movie, and the picturesque locale and life-styles get documentary treatment. Mastrantonio, who began her career as a singer, is especially eye-opening. Unfortunately, insights about Alaska don’t develop, and Sayles cheats shamelessly (by refusing to give his suspense plot an ending). Fresh but not fully satisfying drama for mature viewers.

WE LIVE IN A TV ERA

WE LIVE IN A TV ERA when most prime-time series are overrated—some are awful. You won’t find many unforgettable transcendent moments watching television as the century winds down.

It’s hard enough to find time-passing entertainment that doesn’t chill either brain or heart. Yet different viewers find their pleasures and rewards—even glimpses of the divine—in different places. Touched by an Angel and Seventh Heaven have surging ratings, but they don’t light up the room for me.

What does? It’s hard to cite examples, since TV tastes are short-lived. What was great five years ago may seem quaint in reruns.

Maybe it helps to categorize shows. Start with basic quality, in which episodes are consistently good (longevity counts, as in Law and Order). Call that Class A. If, over time, a series also develops characters that, whatever their flaws, we come somehow to know and love (Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H), consider that Class AA.

The highest level, Class AAA, would be for those that occasionally reach (for Catholics) a level of transcendence (St. Elsewhere and Northern Exposure).

In 1999 few prime-time series reach any of these plateaus. Contenders might include NYPD Blue and Mad About You (Class A); ER is surely Class A and probably on the verge of Class AA.

That’s why it’s sad to lose (after seven seasons) a series like the Baltimore-based Homicide: Life on the Street, one of the rare contemporaries that occasionally stretched out to Class AAA. It won three Peabody Awards but was a consistent ratings loser in its own time period. It will be available in reruns on cable. But nothing out there seems capable of its depth and reach.

THE SOPRANOS

THE SOPRANOS (HBO): In a typical scene in this Mob “family comedy,” highly praised by critics, a truck driver whose load is about to be hijacked insists he must be “scathed” or it’ll look like he didn’t “resist.” So the guys cheerfully beat him up. This is funny?

The basic joke is that criminals deal heavy-handedly with problems. Tony Soprano (well played by movie heavy James Gandolfini) is a lower-level crew boss suffering job- and family-related anxiety attacks, taking Prozac and seeing a shrink (Lorraine Bracco).

The Sopranos are racial bigots, but agree with the pope about cloning. Tony’s mom (Nancy Marchand as the opposite of her sophisticated WASP matron roles) is not always operating on all cylinders; the profane old uncles worry the “business” isn’t what it used to be; the young guys worry there won’t be crime opportunities in the new millennium. The bartender in the Mob-run strip joint is confused by voice-mail menus. (Naked ladies are visible dancing in the background.)

But the stereotypes persist. The idea of hoods as real people who just happen to be in a bad business—revived in pop culture in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction—lends itself to trendy black comedy. The effect is to dismiss or trivialize—as well as display—brutal behavior on many levels. In The Sopranos, the contrast between family warmth and ugly deeds amuses but serves no redemptive purpose. Not recommended.

RELIGION IS POP

RELIGION IS POP: Public radio’s Talk of the Nation explored why religion is suddenly a major factor in presidential politics, with candidates seemingly compelled to use their beliefs as part of their campaign rhetoric. The same week on CNN’s Newsstand series, Judd Rose and Willow Bay discovered God, and matters of faith and morality have suddenly become major TV themes.

The radio hour was a bit more scholarly (no commercial interruptions), but both were fuzzy about causes. They lurk somewhere in the contrast between the country’s vast prosperity and international success and restlessness about perceived moral decline (rampant sexuality, abortion, youth violence).

In the TV report, the trend was cited as significant. For example, both ABC and CBS have movies on Jesus in the works. Big dramatic moments that might be described as religious were excerpted from major shows like Ally McBeal and NYPD Blue (Sipowicz on his knees praying after his wife’s death). Interviews and attitudes were even more intriguing.

Tom Fontana, the Emmy-winning writer (St. Elsewhere, Homicide), recalled his Jesuit education and the statue of St. Eligius he still keeps in his office. Barbara Nicolosi described “the groundswell of religious people in Hollywood” and the Act One writers’ group encouraging religious and moral themes in TV scripts. Also Jesuit Father Bill Cain, creator of Nothing Sacred, talked about “trying to reach other people” and showing on TV “the kind of religion people are used to living.”

Anything religious on TV was once considered deadly. Now it hypes ratings. A shift in public attitudes has contributed to this change. As Fontana put it, “It’s all dictated by public appetites.” It also helps to have talented writers of courage and substance.

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