Given the earnest solemnity of Silvio Soldini’s features up to now, a comedy from the Milanese director of “A Soul Divided in Two” and “The Acrobats” sounds like a scary prospect. It’s surprising, then, that “Bread and Tulips” succeeds to the extent that it does. The sweet-natured tale of a runaway housewife who drifts into a parallel universe of humble eccentrics benefits from a strong cast and moments of genuine charm that help camouflage its inconsistent tone. Bearing little relation to the standard Italian comedy, pic perhaps will find its most receptive audiences on the global fest trail.
The bored housewife who casually makes a break for freedom is a well-worn figure most common to American novels and films, such as Anne Tyler’s “Ladder of Years” or Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan.” Working with co-scripter Doriana Leondeff, Soldini has woven that figure into a convincingly Italian context, heightening the slightly unreal, fairy-tale quality by making her escape to Italy’s most magical city, Venice.
During a bus tour of Italy’s ancient ruins, Rosalba (Licia Maglietta) is momentarily forgotten by her family and left behind at a motorway restaurant. Ignoring instructions to wait there for retrieval, she decides to hitchhike home but on a whim takes a detour to Venice, a city she has never seen. Quietly thrilled to be alone, she checks into a pensione, has a simple meal in a trattoria and then heads for the train station the next day to return home.
But her distraction causes her to miss the train. Having minimal cash and no credit cards, Rosalba goes back to the trattoria to seek accommodation advice from the waiter, Fernando (Bruno Ganz), a reserved but gentlemanly Icelander who speaks amusingly formal Italian. Despite his plans to commit suicide, Fernando puts her up for the night. The arrangement gets extended when Rosalba impulsively takes a job in the florist shop of a cranky anarchist (Felice Andreasi).
While her adolescent sons are untroubled by Rosalba’s absence, her husband, Mimmo (Antonio Catania), is irked by the interruption to his routine and by Rosalba’s inadequate explanation that she “just needs a little holiday.” When Costantino (Giuseppe Battiston), a plumber with a passion for detective thrillers, applies for work with Mimmo’s company, Mimmo dispatches him instead to track down Rosalba in Venice. There, Costantino stumbles into his own reawakening of the soul.
The poetic quirks of each of the characters feel a little too self-consciously relentless, but the script maintains audience sympathy through its refusal to judge any of them. Equal affection is shown for Rosalba, her distracted husband, the bumbling, overweight Costantino, the morose, enigmatic Fernando and his wacky neighbor Grazia (Marina Massironi), a holistic masseuse who becomes Rosalba’s chum.
But the film veers from moments of realism to surrealism, from quasi-screwball comedy to a kind of dour drollery that courts comparison with Aki Kaurismaki. Wedged among all this are some whimsical, Bergmanesque daydream scenes that sit like dead weights in the lighter surroundings.
Cast, however, is uniformly fine. Maglietta brings an agreeable airiness to her character that’s been missing from her other work, while Ganz shows more appeal than he has in years, playing the most delightful and original character in the piece.
Displaying an attention to technical detail that further sets it apart from most Italian comedies, the pic benefits from Giovanni Venosta’s playful score and from the work of d.p. Luca Bigazzi, whose camera seeks out both the grimy and quaint sides of Venice’s little-seen back streets and watery byways.