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With: Licia Maglietta, Bruno Ganz, Felice Andreasi, Giuseppe Battiston, Antonio Catania, Felice Andreasi
Written by: Doriana Leondeff, Silvio Soldini
Directed by: Silvio Soldini
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language, some sensuality and drug references
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 116
Date: 02/29/2000

Bread and Tulips (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The World Accordion to Rosalba

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the grand tradition of "makeover" movies comes the new Italian comedy Bread and Tulips (not to be confused with Ken Loach's Bread and Roses). Only this time the poor, frumpy woman isn't made over by a kindly mentor figure; she's made over by the city of Venice.

The first image shows a lovely old Italian ruin against a blue sky. From the lower left corner of the frame, an army of tourists pours in, like ants to honey. They are identified by their funny hats and shirts, their cameras and cell phones and their flippant attitude. Rosalba (Licia Maglietta) is on vacation with her husband and her two teenage sons. Her purse is overloaded with odd souvenirs and cameras that the men have grown weary of carrying.

During a rest stop, she gets detained in a restroom by a fallen earring and finds that the bus has left without her, with her husband and sons on board having done nothing to stop it. Her furious husband Mimmo (Antonio Catania) phones her and barks at her to stay put while they turn around and rescue her. Finally fed up, she instead catches a ride with a local flibbertigibbet, intending to return home ahead of schedule. But when she realizes she's never been to Venice, she takes a slight detour.

Rosalba quickly becomes enamored of Venice, especially the people there: a melancholy waiter named Fernando (Bruno Ganz, from Wings of Desire) who speaks in verse and puts Rosalba up in his spare bedroom, a holistic masseuse (Marina Massironi) and the anarchistic proprietor (Felice Andreasi) of a flower shop where Rosalba finds employment. Even the fat-slob wannabe detective (Giuseppe Battiston) with a constantly blaring cell phone -- hired by Mimmo to find Rosalba -- falls under the spell of Venice.

Though Bread and Tulips is unconditionally lightweight fare, it avoids the easy route in telling its story. Rosalba and Fernando form a lovely little bond over the course of the film, but it's not easy for Rosalba to shirk her wifely and motherly duties back home. It's a hard choice, and the movie makes us feel that. (She experiences weird, off-putting nightmares challenging her new role as a free woman.) Likewise, director Silvio Soldini makes Venice itself a character in the story without resorting to too many obligatory postcard shots.

Rosalba's makeover happens at her own pace instead of during one rock-video sequence full of squealing and makeup and hair dryers. She merely discards her ghastly burgundy tights and orange shoes for a more exquisite and freeing red-and-white flowered dress. (She even picks up and re-learns to play the accordion!) Rosalba is certainly a woman in middle age, but still resonates with down-to-earth beauty (she looks like an older Janeane Garofalo). Once she loses her housewife shroud, she blossoms as a full-fledged woman with hopes and wants of her own.

Indeed, the movie doesn't have much to say in favor of housewife-ism. Even Mimmo's mistress frowns at the role. At the end of his rope, Mimmo begs her to perhaps iron some shirts in his wife's absence. She's offended: "I'm your mistress, not your wife!" she barks at him. Devoting a life to support a husband and children takes away a person's humanity, the film argues -- though someone has to do it.

Bread and Tulips offers a delightful fairy-tale solution for those feeling trapped in a pre-assigned role, a momentary escape into the imagination. As a comedy, it doesn't offer up many belly laughs, but the gentle ride with these charming characters proves well worth the trip.

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