Bread & Tulips
(Pane e Tulipani)
directed by Silvio Soldini
(First Look, 2000)

Are you living the life you really were meant to live?

What I mean is, if you were given the chance to live, say, a month "out of time," to travel somewhere you've always wanted to discover, to forge a new identity, to rediscover parts of yourself you've had to cover over, would you do it? And when real life beckoned you back, would you go?

It's a heavy question handled with a joyfully light touch in Pane e Tulipani (Bread & Tulips), an Italian film that brims with the promise and awakening of Rosalba.

A provincial housewife who married young, Rosalba Barletta (Licia Maglietta) spends her days being a caretaker -- for her husband, a plumbing supplies salesman, and for her children, who take as little notice of their parents as possible. When she's left behind during a vacation road stop, Rosalba stages a mini-rebellion. Instead of waiting meekly for the tour bus to return, she begins hitchhiking home -- and ends up in Venice instead.

Her husband is apoplectic. Who will iron his shirts? Where is dinner? Those services certainly won't be provided by his mistress (his sister-in-law), who's indignant he'd even ask her to do a wife's work.

The sons are blase; little dents their teenage self-absorption.

But Rosalba decides she deserves a little vacation. Everyone else gets one, she reasons, and these weeks in Venice are, by fits and starts, a chance to really breathe. She's responsible only for herself. She can take the time to know neighbors, to get a job at a flower shop. And when she takes a room in a waiter's home, she slowly begins to weave a new life that parallels her old one.

In director Silvio Soldini's hands, Bread & Tulips has a gentle pace and an absolute adoration of all its characters. It doesn't often descend into too much frothiness, choosing instead to give Rosalba a growing backbone that gives a shimmery film like Bread & Tulips some strength at its core.

The film's shimmer takes away any suspense that might have been there otherwise. You're certain her husband Mimmo won't arrive at her door, violently demanding her return. Her trust in strangers is never misplaced. There's no real danger, nothing to jolt viewers out of a conviction that, in the end, whatever happens to Rosalba and the others will be just fine.

Venice, too, gets in on the action. With the exception of Rosalba's arrival, when she enters Piazza San Marco with open-mouthed astonishment, Bread & Tulips sticks to the Venice of natives. The tiny neighborhood piazzas are strung with drying laundry and ornamented with fountains that don't work. The grandeur is everyday, not the spectacle of doges.

The humor is universal and everyday, too, tiny moments that don't interrupt the flow:

Riding on the highway, Rosalba's car passes one in which a bored child in the backseat holds up a sign to the rear window: New Parents Wanted.

The "private detective" (really an aspiring plumber) Rosalba's husband hires to bring her back gets an elaborate farewell from his mother that takes Italian sons being spoiled by Mama to a whole new dimension.

The waiter, Rosalba's landlord, speaks with an elaborate formality everyone accepts as normal from him -- after a particularly hectic evening, Fernando observes that "the last few hours have been abundant in agitation."

Rosalba begins to love these quirky new friends -- so will she return home to the duties and the family in Pescara, a family she loves despite everything, or lose it all to begin again?

Either way, with the gentleness of Bread & Tulips, it's not giving anything away to tell you everyone will turn out all right.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 14 December 2002

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