I recently watched Tea With Mussolini (1999) and was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed it. In 1935, a group of elderly British women, who the Italians have named the “Scorpioni,” take it upon themselves to help raise a young Italian boy, Luca. Luca’s mother recently passed away, and his father, a well-known businessman, wants little to nothing to do with him. The movie follows the group of women as they educate a young Luca on art, culture, and Italian history.

Believing that the war will escalate, and that Italy will end up siding with Germany and not Britain, Luca’s father chooses to send him to an Austrian boarding school. After 5 years, he returns to study art, only to find that British nationals fleeing in anticipation of Mussolini’s declaration of war on Great Britain. The Scorpioni believe that they are protected by Mussolini himself. However, once the war breaks out, they realize that all they have is each other.

Luca must work with the Scorpioni ladies in order to secure a brighter future for them and the rest of the people of Florence.

With Cher (oh yes!), Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, and Joan Plowright all in one film, it’s hard to pick a favorite character. As the story is based on director Franco Zeffirelli’s youth, audiences get a first-person perspective of the style and look of Florence around the time of WWII. Along with the gripping storyline, the film is a vintage stylist’s dream – although there is a definite hint of the Nineties all throughout – from garden dresses and tea dresses, to ball gowns adorned with the finest furs. The amount of lace tea gloves will have you dig out your own.

In fact, under Zeffirelli’s direction, IMDb reports the film won the award for “Best Costume Design” from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, and it was nominated for a BAFTA award for “Best Costume Design.” The makeup and hair stylists for the film were even given awards for “Best Period Makeup” and “Best Period Hair Styling” from the Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Awards.

But it’s not just the ladies’ wardrobe that will draw you in. You also get a realistic look at the Thirties and early Forties decor, shops, art, and scenery of the time, as well as an in-depth look at how the social and financial elite of the time lived.

For example, a particular scene that can be viewed via Picturebox Films, shows the wealthy Elsa (Cher) arriving in her amazing Art Deco car. As she arrives in what looks like a Panther Deville, Lady Hester Random (Smith), who is having afternoon tea in a proper picnic setting, sneers as she sees Elsa coming and calls her car a “particularly ostentatious vehicle.”

But of course, Elsa’s money isn’t just flaunted by her car in the scene. She is also dressed to the nines, dripping in pearls and wearing a squared brim hat and gloves. The striking black-and-white print of her dress and accessories make her stand out among the more poised and mild-mannered characters of the scene. Even sitting next to the brass Georgie (Tomlin), Elsa comes off as bold and abrasive in her speech, qualities that she could likely only get away with at the time because she was so wealthy.

As much fun as it is to see how the wealthy side of society lives, Zeffirelli makes sure to show how different classes live as well. Some of the most touching moments he recreates occur when Luca is at Mary’s. Mary isn’t as well off as Elsa, but her home is decorated with antique pieces and fabrics that make it both comforting and inviting. Mary, in her apron and simple house dress, uses the light from her tasseled lamp to brighten the stage of a toy stick puppet show for Luca on the kitchen table. A similar toy might not draw the attention of today’s kids, but Luca loves it and he and Mary enjoy acting out a scene together with the toy.

Not only does Tea with Mussolini bring to live design and style in pre-War Italy, but it also gives you a touching inside look on the day in the life from someone who was really there. The film is definitely a must see for any vintage fan!