This heart-affecting drama is set in Florence from 1935 through 1944, when Mussolini's Fascists ruled Italy and took the country into World War II on the side of Germany. Trying to stay above all this change is a group of eccentric English women, known about town as the "Scorpioni." Between teas and museum outings, they help raise a young Italian boy, Luca, who was born out of wedlock. Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) serves as his surrogate mother and teaches him English manners and an appreciation of Shakespeare. He learns about the arts from Arabella Delancey (Judi Dench), a creative spirit who posses enthusiastic loyalties to Italian frescoes and her beloved dog. With war looming, however, Luca's father decides it would be prudent for the boy to go to a boarding school in Austria.

Elsa Morganthal (Cher), a wealthy American who was formerly a Ziegfield dancer and now collects modern art, also takes an interest in the boy; she sets up a trust fund for Luca that comes in handy when he returns to Florence as a teenager to study art. The prissy and domineering Lady Hester Random (Maggie Smith), whose deceased husband was an ambassador to Italy, scorns the American, whom she considers to be a vulgar woman. She wants even less to do with her friend Georgie (Lily Tomlin), a lesbian archaeologist. But as the war turns their lives upside down, all of these women become "enemy aliens" to the Italians.

Tea with Mussolini is Franco Zeffirelli's 13th firm. It is based on a chapter in his autobiography. The ensemble performances by the talented cast are uniformly superb. The drama convincingly portrays how a village can successfully raise a child. In this sense, these colorful, independent, and fiercely proud women teach Luca about the veracity of love, kindness, generosity, and sacrifice. They also bequeath to him a keen reverence for all the arts.