My Dinner with Andre
The charm and power of
the rereleased My Dinner With Andre depends completely on your mind-set going into the theater. Specifically, are you ready to listen, rather than merely watch? The movie is set mainly in a restaurant, where a struggling playwright (Wallace Shawn) and a reclusive stage director (Andre Gregory)
conduct a genial argument: Shawn, mired in overdue bills and a stalled career, can see nothing but his own struggle, but Gregory enchants him,
and challenges him, with wild, beautiful, and sometimes
unbelievable tales of his
spiritual quest to rediscover the theater and life itself. Simple close-ups, reaction shots, and two-shots aren’t director Louis Malle’s usual visual style, but the simplicity becomes hypnotic. After 18 years, My Dinner With Andre is still shocking in its own way: it dares to force you to conjure up a private movie inside your head.
Tea with Mussolini
In this languid portrait of the halcyon days between the great wars, an era that seems to have spawned many irritating
cinematic nostalgists, Franco Zeffirelli constructs a semiautobiographical story based on his charmed youth in Florence. There may be a gripping story buried somewhere in Tea With Mussolini, but it doesn’t belong to the lightweight central
character, little Luca Innocenti, who was born out of wedlock and raised by a gaggle of
artistically inclined British expatriates. The group— dubbed the “Scorpioni” because of their supposedly biting wit— are played, predictably, by Joan Plowright (kindly), Judi Dench (intense), and Maggie Smith (fussy). Also on the scene are a couple of Americans: a brash archaeologist (Lily Tomlin,
sunburned) and a braying,
big-spending art collector (Cher, quite fixed in her facial expression). Amid swirls of
nauseating music, the grandes dames step forward for their bravura moments (tears! songs! defiant curses!), which occur at painfully regular
intervals. In the background, though, is a more fascinating story: that of the Smith character’s mousy grandson. When the women are jailed as enemy aliens, the young man is forced by his grandmother to disguise himself as a girl so that they can be interned together. Ashamed, he finally strips off his dress and escapes to join the resistance. Luca’s transformation from waif to budding artist may be the thrust of the film, but it’s the psyche of the conflicted grandson that you wonder about.