“Bread and Tulips” should appeal to audiences with an appetite for dreamy romantic blather without any concern for logic or common sense. Silvio Soldini’s fable is a feel-good helping of cinematic tiramisu–it’s sweet and spongy, but rather clammy and artificial. It will take a strong stomach to swallow it without feeling the emotional equivalent of a sugar rush; but viewers who embraced such American examples as “Sleepless in Seattle” might want to give it a taste.
One distinction the picture has over others of its ilk is that the characters are decidedly middle-aged rather than the twenty-somethings Hollywood efforts along these lines have lately tended to be (an exception, of course, was Warren Beatty’s “Love Story,” itself a remake of “An Affair ro Remember”). The heroine is Rosalba (Licia Maglietta), a housewife who gets separated from her family while on a bus tour and, while hitching rides home, decides on a lark to visit Venice, a place she’s always wanted to see. She finds it a fairytale-like place, especially after, short of cash, she’s befriended by Fernando (Bruno Ganz), who offers her temporary accommodation in his small, cluttered apartment. Rosalba intends to leave shortly, but entranced by the city and her new-found freedom, instead secures a job with an eccentric florist named Fermo (Felice Andreasi), leaving her irate husband Mimmo (Antonio Catania) to send Constantino (Giuseppe Battiston), a chubby plumber with a yen to play detective, to find her. From this point things get more and more complicated. Constantino eventually links up with Fernando’s bubble-headed neighbor Grazia (Marina Massironi), while Rosalba becomes more and more intrigued with the sad-faced Fernando’s private life; Fernando, meanwhile, gradually abandons his (quite literally) suicidal tendencies and grows ever more romantically interested in her. A magical coupling seems in the cards for these two unlikely souls, until Rosalba is called home by word of difficulties with her sons and Fernando, distraught, must decide whether to follow her and declare his feelings.
Obviously “Bread and Tulips” is meant to portray, in hardly realistic terms, a woman’s struggle between the conventional demands of a married life that’s not longer satisfying but stifling, and the prospect of a new existence that’s both liberated and loving. It tries to fuse comedy and sentimental drama in a convincing whole, but the seams never quite join. On the one hand, the material dealing with the relationship between Rosalba and Mimmo plays like a rather crude farce, and the largely separate stuff involving Constantino as a bumbling sleuth is from yet a second farcical piece, a sort of Inspector-Clouseau-on-the-Adriatic tale. Then there’s the growing attachment between Rosalba and Fernando, which is never so much dramatized as simply assumed. The waiter, for example, is initially depicted as being on the verge of hanging himself, but later we learn that he has a grandson on whom he dotes, making the first impression of him seem false. The characterizations of Fermo, an irritable anarchist, and Grazia, a holistic masseuse, strike one as simply contrived. Soldini also punctuates the narrative with visions of the past and a hallucinatory present that the heroine occasionally experiences; these are terribly forced. And then there’s the problem of the ending. A story such as this, in which a married woman is essentially courted by another man, can never be closed entirely satisfactorily, and Soldini hasn’t succeeded in doing so. He tacks on a denouement that will perhaps be satisfactory at first glance, but on reflection is a cop-out, drenched in schmaltz and aiming desperately for an atmosphere of magical romance that it doesn’t manage to achieve.
On the other hand, there are pleasures here. Maglietta is energetic as Rosalba, and Ganz quite affecting as the dour Fernando. Battiston works hard to make the momma’s boy Constantino both amusing and touching, and succeeds more often than not. The relationship depicted between Rosalba and her two nonchalant sons has the ring of truth to it. And, of course, Venice is a perpetually lovely locale, well captured by Luca Bigazzi’s bright, vivid cinematography.
Ultimately, though, the picture never escapes the scent of deep calculation, a pervading feeling that everything has been so artfully contrived to tug at the heartstrings and tickle the funnybone that the audience is being treated more like a bunch of Pavlovian dogs than intelligent examples of homo sapiens. It may had the desired effect on you while it’s unspooling, but afterwards you’ll probably know you’ve been had.
The original Italian title of the film, incidentally, was obviously selected for its almost poetic repetition–“Pane e Tulipani.” But translated without imagination into English, it hasn’t much meaning. (Even Fermo’s disquisition on tulips at the midway point doesn’t help much.) And like the flowers Rosalba leaves behind for Fernando when she returns to her family, the movie tends to droop and wilt too quickly for comfort.