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REVIEW: Life is Beautiful Again: Italy’s Stale “Bread and Tulips”

REVIEW: Life is Beautiful Again: Italy's Stale "Bread and Tulips"

REVIEW: Life is Beautiful Again: Italy's Stale "Bread and Tulips"

by Scott Foundas

(indieWIRE/ 07.26.01) — An Italian woman, Rosalba (Licia Maglietta), on vacation with her family, gets left behind at a rest stop and, instead of rejoining her husband and two sons, decides to hitchhike back home. Along the way, she gets sidetracked in Venice and, inexplicably, decides to stick around for a while, taking up residence with an Icelandic maitre d’ (Bruno Ganz) and landing a job as the assistant to a crotchety old florist (Felice Andreasi). That’s the would-be amusing set-up of Silvio Soldini‘s “Bread and Tulips,” a film that adopts, with distressing comfort, what has become something of a tried and true movie formula: The middle-aged, married woman who is somehow so put upon by her everyday life that she has to set off on a comic/romantic adventure of self-discovery.

Is this what “Thelma & Louise” hath wrought? This notion that every time we see a woman in the neighborhood of 40, with husband and kids in tow, we should instantly assume the woman to be miserable and her family ungrateful of her selfless support? Certainly, that’s the impression “Bread and Tulips” gives, barely pausing to introduce us to the woman or her husband or her kids before abruptly severing their ties. And what’s really bothersome about all this is the smugness with which Soldini trudges forth, confident that he has hit upon the ideal fodder for blithe fantasy and escapist romanticism.

This may work for some: the audience with which I screened the film,
comprised mostly of middle-aged and older women, applauded at the conclusion.

But to these eyes, there’s little here that’s authentically comic or romantic, and there’s little to laud about a movie that so unspectacularly plays out according to a slothful, preconceived pattern. If there’s a bright spot here, it’s the appearance of Bruno Ganz’s name in the film’s opening titles — white typeface against an innocent black background before we know what we’re in store for.

And when Ganz appears, as Fernando, the maitre d’, he’s hunched-over and hunkered-down by time and dissatisfaction. It’s a signature physiognomy, something a great actor can pull off even when given kibbles-and-bits with which to work. The movie asks Ganz to perform a series of singularly unrewarding tasks: to play shy, cold, gruff; to act suicidal; and to harbor a deep “secret” that, of course, explains his “eccentric” behavior. All of which is conveyed by Soldini through a series of horribly staged, didactic pantomimes (Fernando disconnecting a rope noose from the ceiling of his bedroom; Fernando sneaking off to spend time with a strange woman and a young boy) that account for most of Ganz’s 25 minutes or so of screen time (despite his shared top billing). Nonetheless, Ganz retains his dignity. The movie does not.

Naturally, Rosalba and Fernando slowly fall for each other. But, if the male romantic lead in a film is on screen only one-quarter of a the running time, what to do? Well, for Soldini, the solution is to drop in a bumbling, Inspector Clouseau-esque detective (Giuseppe Battiston), who is actually a plumber, sent by Rosalba’s husband to track down her whereabouts. And while we yearn for the film to focus more on what motivates Rosalba and why she hardly seems to care enough about her own family to give them a single telephone call, an inordinate amount of time is then given over to slapstick pratfalls involving the detective’s search for a Venice hotel room, his relationship with his nagging mother, and his own blossoming romance with one of Rosalba’s neighbors. In truth, he may be the character we get to know best by the end of the film.

In its penultimate moments, “Bread and Tulips” finally allows Rosalba a sober moment of realization, and she returns back home, even if such gravity, at this point, seems to come out of left field. Still, it’s not long before Soldini’s crude technique can no longer resist the impulse to move towards a “happy” ending at all costs, giving us a final scene so singularly unbelievable as to imbue the concept of “tying things up in a neat package”
with newfound triteness.

Yet “Bread and Tulips” is already a big success in its native Italy, with 9 Italian Academy Awards under its belt. And at a time when only a few foreign-language pictures are lucky enough to land U.S. distribution, it has been acquired by First Look Pictures (though not, surprisingly, by market-muscle Miramax, which has locked up nearly every other bit of Italian schmaltz in sight). That means “Bread and Tulips” will likely only meet with a fraction of the success of “Il Postino,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Malena,” which I suppose is fitting, since it’s by far the worst of the lot. But this recent run of popular Italian imports are all brethren in their strained masking of grave circumstance with lighthearted effects.

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