Bread and Tulips (Pane e Tulipani, Italy, 2000) *** 1/2
Directed by Silvio Soldini.Written by Doriana Leondeff and Mr. Soldini. Photography, Luca Bigazzi. Editing, Carlotta Cristiani. Art direction, Paola Bizzarri. Music, Giovanni Venosta. Producer, Daniele Maggioni. Cast: Licia Maglietta (Rosalba), Bruno Ganz (Fernando), Giuseppe Battiston (Costantino), Marina Massironi (Grazia), Antonio Catania (Mimmo), Felice Andreasi (Fermo), Vitalba Andrea (Ketty), Tatiana Lepore (Adele) and Ludovico Paladin (Eliseo). A First Look Pictures release. 104 minutes. In Italian with subtitles. PG-13.
"Hopelessly Romantic" was the first choice for the film's Anglo title, but the final decision was to translate literally its original title, which is euphonious in Italian, but not in English, and is not as meaningful as what was discarded.
There's a sub-category--perhaps even a mini-genre--of movies about a woman's dull existence being transformed into an almost impossibly romantic life. "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995) and David Lean's classic "Brief Encounter" (1946) belong to this general orientation, although those liberating love affairs were strictly temporary. Not so in the case of Rosalda's transformation in "Bread and Tulips."
Rosalda, 41, is played by Licia Maglietta who was 45 or so when the film was shot. She is pretty in a natural, unglamorous, well-padded way -- a relief from the would-be sexy bimbos on American screens. B & T was her sixth film of seven. Rosalda is the wife of Mimmo--a bathroom fixtures entrepreneur--and the mother of two teenage boys. They live in Pescara (pop.130,000) on the Adriatic coast.
The movie opens cannily. A bus tour guide is shepherding the flock through Paestum--the antique location by the gulf of Salerno (SW Italy)--that was founded ca. 600 B.C. by Greek colonists. It is a spectacular site of splendidly preserved Greek and Roman temples. The guide sings the glory of antiquity and of today's Italy as well. There must be a catch to such paeans. There is. It is the contrast between inspired architecture and people's lives of routine.
At a rest stop, Rosalda drops an earring in the john, struggles to recover it "hygenically"(it's funny, realistic but not farcical)... and misses by inches the departing bus which contains the tour group and her little family. Which family is (significantly) unaware of her absence until Rosalda phones hubby Mimmo. He, of course, blames her
Here begins Rosalda's mini-Odyssey. To get back to Pescara she hitchhikes first with a voluble, outspoken woman with unorthodox views on relationships; then with a silent man who is driving North. Exhausted, he asks her to take the wheel while he takes a nap.
North means the unknown-to-Rosalda Venice. In a whiff of self-interest and assertion, the first in her dull life as a housewife, she ignores the road sign to Pescara and proceeds to Venice.
It's charming and it stays that way to the end. Being short of money Rosalda ends up spending the night in a small hotel that's closing for good come next day. But the place's last night is also Rosalda's first step to a sort of low-key renewal and rebirth.
Soon she is staying at the apartment of helpful waiter Fernando, who hails from Iceland, speaks excellent, literary Italian, and recites "Orlando Furioso" among others. (Actor Bruno Ganz, often thought of as a German, is the son of a Swiss father and an Italian mother.) Fernando is a latter-day version of a melancholy Dane --well, Icelander. He is contemplating suicide.
Most of this takes place not in Venice the Fabulous, the touristic, romantic Mecca, the city of art, lagoons, gondolas, the Piazza San Marco and movie romance from Katharine Hepburn to Woody Allen. This Venice is one that tourists do not see: back streets where locals live, modest restaurants, hotels and shops.
Rosalda, aided and abetted by the kindness of strangers, gradually acquires her own personality. I'll skip the many clever, fine points of this lovely tale and cut to Rosalda deciding to prolong her visit. Upset husband Mimmo hires very corpulent Costantino -- a single who lives with his mamma, is a jobless plumber, likes detective fiction-- to sleuth in Venice.
It is not "amore" that motivates Mimmo, but the lack of someone to iron his shirts. His current mistress (for five years) refuses to do it.
In Venice Rosalda finds a temporary job with an old florist, a curmudgeonly yet likable anarchist who is a poet at heart. She also makes friends with holistic masseuse Grazia who's something of kook. Grazia and Costantino fall madly in love. Don't ask. And don't ask either how romance hits Rosalda and Fernando.
So much happens in this story that the deliberate, natural, even leisurely tempo of the plot is a tour-de-force, especially as it never hits you as a tour-de-force. Everybody is quirky, but "normally quirky." Everybody says I love you --"pace" Woody Allen.
Someone declares :"le cose belle sono lente" (beautiful things are slow.) A beautiful aspect of the movie is the way the "slowness" of its development is not felt, the way the fast relationships do not feel hurried, the way the picture's "cinema of the absurd" flows naturally, the way neither characters nor events feel artificial. The film is also uncannily un-cliched in its details. An example. Earlier, at the rest-stop, the item Rosalda dropped into the toilet was not --as some have said -- her wedding ring. This would have been blatant symbolism within a movie that avoids the obvious.
This is director Soldini's fourth feature, his second with both his star Licia Maglietta and his co-writer Doriana Leondeff after their collaboration in "Le Acrobate" (1997.) That's another work, very different from "B & T." It too ought to be seen.