Growing up is hard to do, and if you're illegitimate, it becomes even more difficult because good role models may be in short supply. Add to the mix war and an oppressive political regime, and the odds seem stacked against a person finding his moral compass.

Pro-abortionists might argue that such a child should never be born. But Franco Zeffirelli overcame all these obstacles to become an internationally respected director of opera, theater and film (Jesus of Nazareth).

Tea With Mussolini is his story. Zeffirelli and British screenwriter, John Mortimer, have created an alter ego, Luca (Charles Lucas) and dramatized his rites of passage against the background of Italian fascism and World War II.

The movie begins in a cemetery in Florence on June 29, 1935, the anniversary of the death of English poetess, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A small band of female British expatriates, nicknamed the Scorpioni, are paying homage to her life and art. Inspired by her example, they are determined never to leave Italy. Three of them will become crucial influences on Luca.

The most important is Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright), a middle-aged spinster who is secretary to Luca's anglophile dressmaker father (Paolo Seganti). Asensible self-sufficient woman, she protests the way the pre-adolescent boy is being treated. His father's wife, who has offspring of her own, calls him a “bastard” to his face.

“There are no illegitimate children,” Wallace declares to Luca's father, “only illegitimate parents.” In reply, he challenges her “to give the boy a home” since his birth mother is dead.

At first the spinster refuses, but after seeing the sad faces at the orphanage where Luca has been placed, she changes her mind. Her approach to child-rearing is “to teach him Shakespeare and the difference between right and wrong.”

The unofficial leader of the Scorpioni is Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith), the widow of a recent British ambassador. She, too, has a strong sense of right and wrong, influenced primarily by manners, propriety and external appearance. She considers Mussolini “a vibrant man” who makes the trains run on time.

When his violence-prone, black-shirted fascisti disrupt a cafe where she's a regular customer, she objects to Il Duce himself. Mindful of her possible political influence, the dictator invites her to tea. “You will always be under my personal protection,” he assures her. His seeming gallantry so impresses her that she remains blind to the evil he's perpetrating.

Another of Luca's role models is an eccentric artist, Arrabella Delancey (Judi Dench) who introduces him to the beautiful paintings and sculptures all around him. He is encouraged to express his own considerable talents in those fields and become “part of the divine plan.”

Arrabella and the more artistically inclined Scorpioni befriend EIsa (Cher), a former American showgirl with a wealthy, elderly husband. Lady Hester brands her “a flagrantly immoral woman” because of her outrageous behavior and the racy company she keeps. But Luca learns not to judge people by gossip and appearances.

Elsa is the only person who admits to having known his mother. When the young Italian woman was pregnant with Luca, everyone but Elsa urged her to have an abortion. He forms a close bond with the former showgirl who alone wanted him to be born. The filmmakers are aware of the pro-life message implicit in the situation but don't underline it. Fearing Elsa's bad influence, Lady Hester opposes the relationship.

As Mussolini makes alliances with Hitler, Luca's father unexpectedly asserts himself. “English is no longer the language of the future,” he says to Wallace while firing her. He also takes the boy away from her and ships him off to a German boarding school. In a further sign of the times, his residence hotel changes its name from Pensione Shelly to Pensione Schiller.

When war is finally declared against England, the Scorpioni, who've remained in Florence, are arrested as unfriendly aliens. Luca, home on holiday, watches them being carted off to a jail in a nearby town.

As America is not yet Mussolini's official enemy, Elsa is still on the loose. Informed by Luca of the British women's plight, she secretly bribes officials to transfer them to a luxury hotel and pays all their expenses. Lady Ransom assumes that Il Duce is honoring his promise to her and has ordered the move. She continues to treat Elsa with contempt.

But the former showgirl has turned herself into a model of compassion and self-sacrifice. With Luca as her emissary, she sets up her own mini-resistance movement, helping Jews and other persecuted citizens obtain false passports to escape. Eventually, Italy goes to war with the United States, and Elsa, herself a Jew, finds her own life in jeopardy as the fascisti scheme to grab her extensive collection of modern art.

Tea With Mussolini is more a series of vignettes centered on a young boy's coming of age than a tightly constructed drama. But its charm and life-affirming spirit sweep us along. Our own eyes are opened as we watch Luca receive his personal and political education from those who, at first glance, might seem unqualified to teach him.

U.S. Catholic Conference: adults and adolescents

Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.

Infocus

Catholic fans of Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth should be warned of hisTea With Mussolini's casual attitude toward sexuality. Today's era of climbing rates of venereal disease, broken families and emotional problems gives a special urgency to the Church's teaching.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses this when it teaches that “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (No. 2332).