Bread and Tulips is a charmer, the sort of low-keyed film that creeps up on you with its astute observations and warm and wry, character-based humor. Like other recent films such as You Can Count on Me, Two Family House, Tumbleweeds, and Spring Forward, it evokes the kind of pleasing glow that the pretentious blockbusters lose in their hollow emphasis on bloated production at the expense of character.
At the center of Bread and Tulips is one of the most endearing heroines to come along in years, Rosalba Barletta (Licia Maglietta). Maybe mid-40s and married to a short-tempered plumbing equipment dealer, she is the mother of two adolescent sons. Unassertive, meek, self-effacing, she’s also a klutz, dropping her wedding ring into a rest room toilet. The resulting delay causes her to miss the bus on which her family is traveling. (At various times she also breaks a souvenir, struggles with a camera, and spills coffee. But rather than turning this into silly slapstick, director Silvio Soldini looks with a sympathetic eye–these are slips that happen to everyone, everyday human errors.)
Rosalba decides to hitch home to Pescara and her adventures begin; she ends up in Venice, because that’s where one ride takes her–but also because she had never been to Venice (only some 300 miles from home) and, as she had observed, she never gets to spend time alone. One small decision follows another as she gropes her way to a bit of independence, to experiencing a taste of a world wider than the parameters of her middle-class, housewife/mother humdrummery.
There’s one misadventure after another and a series of wonderfully eccentric acquaintances: the suicidal waiter from Iceland, Fernando (Bruno Ganz) who lets her stay in a room in his house; her new neighbor, Grazia (Marina Massironi), who is a "holistic beautician and masseuse;" the florist who gives her a job, Fermo (Felice Andreasi), an anarchist more interested in matching the flowers to the occasion than in making the sale.
This is not the Venice of Katherine Hepburn, nor is it Summertime. That film was an escapist fantasy trading on the standard tourist sites of an idealized Venice and a matinee idol stealing the heart of a repressed spinster. Soldini has only one brief, passing image of San Marco, and that is as a reflection in Rosalba’s sunglasses. His settings are working class neighborhoods in Venice, away from the tourist center. Paint peels and plumbing floods. The theme of the blossoming of an adult woman parallels Summertime, but Summertime is set in Hollywood make-believe, while Bread and Tulips, though not without its fantasy element, is down to earth and wise in the ways of real people. Its romantic interest is a melancholy grandfather and every one of the characters is caught up in the real world of missed opportunities and broken souvenirs.
Rosalba’s husband, peeved because his shirts are not getting ironed, sends an unemployed plumber (Giuseppe Battiston), who has been reading too many detective stories, to find his wife in Venice, so there is plot movement here which sustains some dramatic pace. But it is the unfolding of all these quirky characters that provides the real interest. Fernando speaks in florid, poetic phrases and turns out to have an interesting and varied history. And Rosalba, a sensitive soul, is nonjudgmental and open to the variety of others’ experiences. Slowly, subtly, in a perfectly modulated and understated performance, Maglietta allows her to blossom, to develop confidence, and she gets more attractive as she does so.
This is a "small" film aimed at a broad market. Not every moment works as well as the whole, but it avoids the sort of excessive sentimentality to which this material is susceptible and it succeeds admirably as a gently wise, yet unpretentious entertainment.
At one point Rosalba says, "I’m just passing through," and the response she gets is: "Who isn’t?" Everyone is passing through–but who is stopping to admire the tulips?