Bread and Tulips
aka Pane e tulipani

Italian Bread and Tulips poster

Italian language. Italy/Switzerland, 2000. Rated PG-13. 112 minutes.

Cast: Licia Maglietta, Bruno Ganz, Marina Massironi, Giuseppe Battiston, Felice Andreasi, Antonio Catania, Vitalba Andrea, Daniela Piperno, Tatiana Lepore, Tiziano Cucchiarelli, Matteo Febo, Silvana Bosi
Writer: Doriana Leondeff, Silvio Soldini
Music: Giovanni Venosta
Cinematographer: Luca Bigazzi
Producer: Daniele Maggioni
Director: Silvio Soldini


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

B read and Tulips is a slight film. A light comedy that covers old ground, it's the oft-told story of a woman escaping from the prison of a bad marriage and an unappreciated duty-bound existence as a housewife to blossom suddenly in middle age. It may surprise you to learn that Bread and Tulips won nine the Italian Academy Awards (the David Di Donatello awards) last year. Though there's no denying that Bread and Tulips is just a feel-good movie, it is a delightfully executed, simple, and unassuming film, not drowned in cloying syrupiness like most Italian films that have made it Stateside over the past ten years.

As Bread and Tulips opens, we meet Rosalba Barletta (Licia Maglietta), a woman in her early forties on vacation in Southern Italy with her family. Abandoned at a highway rest area by the tour bus, she hitches a ride rather than waiting for her family to return. Instead of going home, however, she heads to Venice, intending to stay only a couple days. A couple days turns into a couple weeks, and then a couple months. She winds up lodging with a waiter of Icelandic origin, Fernando (Bruno Ganz from Wings of Desire, whose mother is Italian), striking up a friendship with her neighbor, a New-Age masseuse named Grazia (Marina Massironi), and working at a flower shop. Meanwhile, her overbearing husband, Fermo (Felice Andreasi), hires a plumber, Costantino (Giuseppe Battiston), to go to Venice to locate his wife, or more accurately from his point of view, his missing property.
The Big Picture
ratings explained

Although not enough time is spent establishing Rosalba's relationship to her husband and her two teenaged children, the plot is functional. The charm of Bread and Tulips is in the charm of the actors, particularly Maglietta, who, with a calm performance, conveys the sense of a flower blooming--a prevalent visual motif representing Rosalba. Nothing is essentially different about Rosalba, but Maglietta subtly invests her with vitality as the film progresses. For those who might wonder why Rosalba has a few lines on her face, why her skin isn't pulled taut over her cheeks, or why she doesn't have the physique of a runway model, it is because this particular early middle-aged character is actually played by an early middle-aged woman. She may not be twenty-five anymore, but Maglietta is a beautiful woman, and she shines brightly.

There are occasions when Bread and Tulips threatens to become a farce, but it consistently declines the opportunity to do so. At the beginning, for example, Rosalba drops an earring into a toilet at the rest area. She tries to fish it out with a pair of eyebrow tweezers, then drops the tweezers as well and tries to use other implements. Rosalba's reactions are the exasperation of a real person, not the overblown machinations of a clown like Roberto Benigni. Similarly, director and co-writer Soldini doesn't dwell on the situation. Instead of showing the resolution of the scene (with Rosalba physically climbing into the toilet or something), Soldini cuts away to show Rosalba exiting the rest area, shaking herself off, only to discover that her bus is leaving with her family on board. The movie again contemplates a farcical turn when Chris Farley-look-alike Costantino appears, whose qualifications for detective work are that he has read nearly three hundred detective novels. Nevertheless Soldini refuses to indulge in wacky antics, which would diminish the realism he is striving for.U.S. Bread and Tulips poster

It's important to note that though the thematic content may be old hat to U.S. audiences, the feminist movement and sexual revolution were never as strong in Italy as in the United States. The role of women has not changed as much in Italy. It certainly is changing, but there are still are many more women in Italy who stay at home not because they choose to, but because it is what is culturally expected. If a movie's message is important to you, Bread and Tulips is timelier than it may seem, particularly in a world where Fermo's mistress can realistically lecture Rosalba about her familial responsibilities.

One can probably attach symbolic significance to the film's opening in the magnificent Greek ruins at Paestum (south of Naples), where the tour guide makes Mussolini-esque proclamations about Italians being the heir to the cultures of Greece and Rome. Perhaps by choosing this location, Soldini is saying the old cultural definitions of family and gender roles are also in ruins. Or perhaps it's not much fun to delve this deeply into the symbolism of a light comedy. One last thing about symbolism, though: Fernando's last name (oddly not Icelandic) is "Girasoli," which means "sunflowers," so when you see sunflowers, you'll know what the film is alluding to.

Sadly for U.S. audiences, part of the delight of Bread and Tulips is in the language. Foreign comedies, particularly non-farces, translate worse than dramas. Subtitles summarize, generalize, skip detail, and lose the nuance of the original language, so essential to most comedy. Take Fernando, for example. Speaking with an accent, he talks like he has learned Italian out of a 19th century butler's handbook (or at least the classics of literature, which he often quotes), but only about half of the baroque language comes through in the subtitles. For an audience without the benefit of understanding the original language, the movie may more accurately rate a B or B-. Even with that handicap, most people should find plenty to enjoy. There are comedies that make you laugh out loud, and comedies that just make you smile. Sometimes, the ones that make you smile are the ones that stay with you the longest.

Review © September 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 First Look Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

  Comment on this review on the boards  

  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page