Directed by: Silvio Soldini
Starring: Licia Maglietta, Bruno Ganz, Marina Massironi, Giuseppe Battiston, Felice Andreasi
Silvio Soldini's Bread and Tulips is without question the most utterly beguiling and charming romantic comedy to come along since Chocolat. It's not quite in that league and it probably isn't as good as its nine -- count 'em, nine -- Donatello Awards (Italy's version of the Oscar) might indicate, but it's nonetheless a tremendously enjoyable and strangely vital effort. The material isn't especially original in terms of plot -- a middle-aged woman suddenly realizes how empty her life is and how taken for granted she is by her family; when the opportunity presents itself, she sets about carving a brand new life for herself. Soldini's direction, while possessing an appropriately light touch, is almost defiantly old-fashioned (I don't know when I last saw a film so enamored of ending scenes with that oldest of devices, the fade-out). But it's the kind of material that succeeds or fails in specifics, and the specifics of Doriana Leondeff (Notes of Love) are delightfully whimsical and quirky. Soldini floods the screen with joyous, brightly colored images and an unashamed love for his eccentric characters -- and realizes that he is in possession of two genuinely luminous performers, Licia Maglietta and Bruno Ganz, with whom the best he can do is provide the appropriate atmosphere for them to inhabit. Soldini's obvious affection for the characters doesn't prevent him from showing them at their most ludicrous -- often before we even know them. Possibly no heroine in the history of film can have had a less glorious introduction than Maglietta fishing her wedding ring out of a public toilet -- an act at once comic and apt, since this none-too-subtle comment on her marriage actually provides the reason that she misses a tour bus and her continued vacation with her family (who are so unconscious of her that they don't immediately realize she isn't among them). Her family's non-reaction to her "disappearance" and her husband's irritation at her mistake quickly set her on her own way -- to the lower-class side of Venice, where eccentric characters and shrewdly developed circumstances embroil her in a new life before she realizes what's happening. Of course, any determinedly rational examination of a world that includes an anarchist florist who tends to tell his customers what kind of flowers they ought to buy, a "holistic beautician and masseuse," a suicidal restaurateur who never uses five words when 25 will do, and a mama's boy plumber goaded into being a singularly inept private detective is bound to conclude that no such world could possibly exist. The trick and the genius of Bread and Tulips is that it makes you so want to believe in the reality of this world that you just don't care about its probability. The film accomplishes this by making the emotions of these improbable creatures disarmingly real in a way that defies normal concerns of reality. It's a splendidly funny, charming film about opportunities lost and the realization that such opportunities do not have to be lost forever -- even if you're a 40-odd year old housewife, a defeated restaurateur or an anarchist florist. In Bread and Tulips, life is seen as rich with possibilities beneath its mundane surface -- ranging from mastering the accordion to starting life anew on your own terms -- lurking around every corner ( or in the case of this particular setting, across every canal.) Perhaps the film's single greatest delight, however, is the completely unforced, unexpected and yet ultimately so right romance between Maglietta and Ganz. About as far from a traditional romantic couple as it's possible to get, the pair become the film's ideal of romance -- and one that it's impossible not to embrace. Rich in character, heart and humor, and delighting in the quirkiness of human behavior, Bread and Tulips is a movie not to be missed.