Franco Zeffirelli may seem quintessentially Italian, but he grew up among Tuscany's English exiles. Now he's making a film about them, with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Joan Plowright. Lee Marshall joined the set on location in Chiantishire

FLORENCE: the English Cemetery. A procession of Panama-hatted men and parasol-shaded ladies wends its way up through the Victorian statuary towards the tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This annual memorial service used to be one of the key events in the Anglo-Florentine's social calendar, when those whose souls and living-rooms were torn between the Home Counties and la bella vita toscana paid homage to a pioneer.

"Cut!" shouts Franco Zeffirelli. And the motley collection of expatriates wanders back down the path to do it all again. The illusion is dispelled - but not entirely. Most of the extras on the set today have been recruited from Florence's present-day English community, including a gangly Lytton Strachey lookalike who turns out to be a gentleman farmer fallen on hard times.

Tea With Mussolini, which Zeffirelli is currently shooting in Tuscany, is based on the director's memories of his childhood in Thirties Florence. Scripted by John Mortimer, it recreates the final days of that world of tea parties and gossip that would be swept away by the outbreak of the Second World War. Taking centre stage are three combative elderly ladies, referred to behind their backs as "the Scorpions", who refuse to leave Florence in the autumn of 1939. Mussolini was a hero to many of them. Lady Hester - a character played by Maggie Smith - even met Il Duce for tea once, and found him to be "perfectly charming" (the fictional meeting is based on one that really took place between Mussolini and Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West's lover).

A man who elevated opportunism to a point of principle, Mussolini postponed Italy's entry into war for as long as possible, until June 1940; and as Zeffirelli points out, he kept his options open by being "very attentive to the English community". But after declaring war on the Allies he was forced to do something about the "enemy aliens" who still clung on to their adoptive home - and so it is that the Scorpions, to Lady Hester's disbelief, find themselves interred in the Tuscan town of San Gimignano (much like Tony Blair and his family on their summer holidays).

Zeffirelli's having trouble getting the film in the can. Yesterday was a washout, and though the sun is shining today, things keep going wrong. Judi Dench - who plays an ageing flapper - rushes in on the memorial party wielding a basket of petals. She flounces around, scattering her flowery confetti and singing a bucolic ditty in a high-pitched voice. But the dog who is supposed to be her faithful companion is disturbed by a particularly high-pitched note, and starts barking madly (or perhaps he is simply joining in). On the next take, all is going well until an aeroplane roars overhead.

Each time, the multi-coloured petals have to be removed from hats, clothes, gravel and tomb before the cameras can start rolling again. But Dame Judi is taking it all in her stride. Even her 6.30am make-up call is a breeze. "When I did Mrs Brown with Billy Connolly, I was woken up at four o'clock every morning. With Billy keeping us all awake at night telling dirty stories, it was hardly worth going to bed." She is back in Florence 13 years after an uncannily similar role in A Room with a View. "Yes, it's very odd - there are so many coincidences." Both A Room with a View and Tea With Mussolini are about English expats in Florence, and both feature the double Dame act of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. And Zeffirelli adds a Lady, Joan Plowright, Lady Olivier, who in this film is socially downgraded: she plays the only one of the three Scorpions who actually works for a living.

The international line-up is completed by two US stars - comedienne Lily Tomlin, who plays a lesbian archaeologist, and Cher, as a flamboyant Jewish art dealer who is given refuge by the Scorpions when the threat of deportation looms. The film is produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Frederick Muller and Clive Parsons for Medusa, a company controlled by Zeffirelli's friend and political ally Silvio Berlusconi, which is putting up all of the estimated $14m budget. With distribution deals already signed with Goldwyn Films in the USA and Universal for the rest of the world, Tea With Mussolini looks set to cover its costs.

THIS IS the first time in a varied career that Zeffirelli has taken his own life as his subject. It's odd that he's never done so before. He likes nothing better than to take centre stage, most recently as a rabidly anti-Communist senator in the Italian parliament. But more importantly, his Florentine childhood turns out to be a story worth telling.

Born in 1923, Zeffirelli was the illegitimate child of a well-to-do shopkeeper's daughter. His father was a Florence textile merchant with a reputation as a Don Giovanni. They had an "extremely stormy love affair", but both were married to others, and divorce was unthinkable. In any case, says Zeffirelli, his father had little interest in a steady relationship. So Franco's mother was left to bring up the child with her six other legitimate offspring in the face of family disapproval and public ostracism.

In 1930s Italy it was still considered a mark of shame for an illegitimate child to take the mother's surname - so Franco's mother had to invent one. An opera lover, she hit on zeffiretti - "little breezes" - a phrase from an aria in Mozart's Idomeneo. Perhaps she failed to cross her "t"s, or perhaps the clerk was in a hurry - somehow "Zeffiretti" was registered as "Zeffirelli".

Franco's mother died of tuberculosis when he was six, and his home became the Spedale degli Innocenti - the Brunelleschi- designed orphanage in Piazza dell' Annunziata which took in orphans and unwanted children (the young Franco character in the film is called Luca Innocenti). At the age of nine, Franco's father was shamed into providing for him - though he drew the line at taking him into his own family. Zeffirelli was entrusted to an aunt, and later to his father's English secretary - the character played in the film by Joan Plowright. It was she who took the boy under her wing and introduced the boy to the English expatriate community.

Between the wars, Florence could count more than 18,000 full- or part- time English residents. But gli inglesi were a very self-contained group. The Anglo-Florentines had their own social map of the city, and their own calendar that revolved around courtesy visits, garden parties in the various out-of-town villas owned by the aristocracy, and five-o-clock tea at Doney's in Via Tornabuoni. The young Zeffirelli was fascinated by this world. He became, as he now admits, "torn between two cultures".

Dichotomies, though, are a Zeffirelli trademark. He is a champion of right-wing values - and yet his first cinema job was as assistant director to the aristocratic Marxist Luchino Visconti on La Terra Trema (1948), a classic neo-realist study of Sicilian fishermen. He can always be relied on for a politically incorrect quote on the perils of immigration - yet he campaigns fiercely for animal rights (in 1993 he even launched an attack on one of Tuscany's most sacred instistutions - the Palio horse race in Siena). He is a devout Catholic and an outspoken anti-abortionist; yet in the films and operas he has directed, he has never shied away from the steamier side of human passion. His Oscar- winning film of Romeo and Juliet included a nude love scene - quite a novelty in 1968. And two years earlier, his robust version of The Taming of the Shrew derived much of its impact from the real-life marital tension between its two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, then on the verge of their first divorce.

Zeffirelli has always had a soft spot for lush adaptations of literary classics, and for the kind of organza-strewn opera stagings that go down a treat at the Metropolitan in New York, where Zeffirelli is practically director-in-residence. In his best films - Romeo and Juliet, or his rich and glossy La Traviata (1981) - out-and-out sentimentality is balanced by a keen dramatic instinct, and justified by the explosive emotions of his source material. In his worst - and there are a number of candidates, among them his most recent, the slushy Sparrow (1993) - the appeal to the tear-ducts is so unsubtle and so unmediated by the effort of getting us there, that it backfires. These days, few can sit through Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) - which one reviewer referred to as "Zeffirelli's hello-flowers-hello-sky biopic of St Frances of Assisi" - without at least one fit of the giggles.

After years of sniping from the sidelines at what he refers to as the "Communist colonisation of Italian culture", Zeffirelli finally entered politics in March 1994 as a senator with the Forza Italia party, which had been built up from nothing in two months by his close friend, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. In an earlier attempt in 1983 he had failed to get himself elected - much to his subsequent relief, as he had then been standing as a candidate for the Christian Democrat party, which a decade later would be swept away in the tangentopoli corruption scandal. In interviews, Zeffirelli likes to present the call from Berlusconi (he still remembers the date: 10 January) as a quasi-mystical event - a Calling of St Matthew, perhaps, with Caravaggio as director of photography. "Berlusconi called me - he said: `Franco, we have to talk: I've decided to enter politics.' And I said: `Silvio, I'm here.' "

Zeffirelli holds the current record for parliamentary absenteeism: he has failed to turn up for 98 per cent of all debates in the Senato. He approaches films, interviews, operas and football (he is an avid supporter and former director of Florence's premier league side, Fiorentina) with the same unbridled energy - but he hasn't quite cracked the secret of omnipresence.

BACK ON the set, it's time for lunch. Seated at one of the trestle tables set up to feed the starving extras, the Strachey lookalike confides that he can earn almost as much as this picking grapes. He has a fairly good chance of alternating the two activities, as films about expatriates in Tuscany are becoming as endemic as straw-covered flasks of Chianti. A Room with a View started the ball rolling. More recently we have had Stealing Beauty, Bernardo Bertolucci's tribute to the more bohemian side of Chiantishire; Jane Campion's stern take on Henry James's Portrait of a Lady; and the better half of The English Patient.

In fact, the niche is getting positively crowded. As Zeffirelli's team roll their dollies in the English Cemetery, a rival film crew is polishing lenses and arranging lights in a villa on the other side of the city. Up at the Villa, based on a Somerset Maugham novella, and directed by Philip Haas, known chiefly for his stimulating 1995 adaptation of Angels and Insects, AS Byatt's twisted specimen of Victoriana. Up at the Villa is set in the same period as Tea with Mussolini - the 1930s - and even uses some of the same extras. One I talked to - an American drama teacher - had arranged her summer holidays around the shooting schedules of the two films. Haas's film stars Sean Penn, and gives Kristin Scott Thomas a huge role ("I'm in every scene, like Hamlet"). She plays an English woman whose plans to marry an old family friend (James Fox) are upset by her involvement with not one but two other men.

John Mortimer, who wrote the script of Tea with Mussolini, is surely the best person to explain what's going on here. This is the man who chronicled the antics of the English in Tuscany in his book Summer's Lease, and who is credited with having invented the "Chiantishire" label (though there is a continuing etymological debate here). Does he have a theory about just why Tuscany is such a magnet for the British?

"Well it's partly just the beauty of the place," says Mortimer. "Even in France, there are very few areas in which every single square in every single town stands out. In Tuscany you have Siena - with the most beautiful square in the world - Pienza, all those towns ... and I suppose the food, which uses very simple ingredients, is like English nursery cooking - or at least what English nursery cooking should taste like ... " Mortimer even sees parallels between the English character and the Tuscan character - "which was something Harold Acton always used to point out. The stoicism, the proverbs - Tuscans are strong and silent in rather an English manner."

Whatever the attraction, it certainly works for him. Mortimer is off to his rented house in Chiantishire for the 14th year running. Providing, of course, that it hasn't been commandeered by a film crew.

! `Tea with Mussolini' will be released early next year.

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