There aren’t enough good films about middle-aged people, let alone good romantic comedies about them. One of the best, though, is Bread & Tulips (Pane e tulipani), an Italian charmer warmly directed by Silvio Soldini from a script penned by him and Doriana Leondeff. This unhurried, life-embracing piece glows with humanity, and its dreamlike resolution of its protagonist’s dilemma leads to an interesting afterlife. By “afterlife” I refer to our own responses to her conflicted situation, which we are compelled to face once the film is done. Part of the “depth” that Soldini achieves involves the attitudes of his audience, us, as we come to grips with our hopes and desires for Rosalba Barletta, who chooses between a straightjacketing marriage and a freeing and expansive alternative life.
Rosalba begins in a rut. On vacation with spouse and teenaged sons, she appears to have no life apart from the claims her family makes on her. She seems to have long since settled into a marginal role that allows her little or no opportunity to express her feelings or even her views about things. Her husband, Mimmo, a plumbing supplier, is an efficient tyrant. (He is callous and self-centered but not physically abusive.) Reflecting traditional Italian patriarchism, Mimmo expects to be indulged in his imbecilic humor and expects everything to go his way. (His professional connection to the bathroom slyly stresses his anality.) Nothing so underscores how completely Alba is taken for granted than the fact that no one in her family, including her spouse, notices her absence from the tour bus when it pulls out from one of its stops. Alba has been left behind. No problem: Mimmo, by cell phone, orders her to stay put so that he can come pick her up. Should she, she wonders, obey or search for adventure? Alba resolves this initial dilemma by choosing a middle road. She decides to go home, but on her own, hitchhiking—only, the driver who gives her a ride happens to be going to Venice, and Alba has never been to Venice, and her one little step of self-determination has now positioned her to pursue fresh experience. She opts for Venice.
The film focuses on her adventures there, including her acquaintanceship with a baleful waiter from Iceland, Fernando, who becomes her landlord, and another tenant, Grazia, a masseuse. Too, Alba takes up playing the accordion after an adult-long hiatus and begins at a job for the first time, working for a florist, Fermo, who is an anarchist. Meanwhile, Mimmo has hired a job candidate, Constantino, who reads detective mysteries to find Alba in Venice; but once there he also falls under the city’s spell, giving up his potential job back home in Pescara to remain with Grazia, with whom he has fallen in love. Fernando, who turns out to have quite a hidden life, has also fallen in love, with Rosalba, whose gift of tulips when she leaves to return home is an inadequate substitute for the woman with whom he desires to spend the rest of his life. But news of a son’s drug use has impelled Alba’s return to her domestic life. Mimmo will not hear of her Venetian sojourn, insisting instead that they pretend that nothing at all had happened, in effect, dismissing all concern for the self-determining, newly independent woman that his wife has become while away from him. Also, Rosalba discovers that her marginalized family role has, ironically, left her without authority to weigh in on her son’s behavior. Moreover, when the boy differentiates between harmful drug use and his own recreational use of marijuana, his mother recognizes the distinction’s relation to her own dilemma. Marriage is serious, but, when love contests this, one must give love a chance to prevail. Fernando comes courting with flowers, and Rosalba leaves Mimmo and her old unfulfilling life behind.
It is a mistake, I think, to dismiss this resolution as fantasy. Reality may have been slow in coming to Pescara, but at least since Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in the nineteenth century, women have had the option to leave married lives that strangle their breath of identity and self-expression like a too-tight corset. Moreover, we the audience provide the scrutiny of “reality” after the film is finished; for it is we who must confront the committed desire we enjoyed to have Rosalba leave sons and husband and home for her new life in Venice. In short, it is we who ultimately weigh the inadequacy of the traditional claims on Alba’s heart and soul. It is we who confirm her decision, in effect, thus bringing it fully into the realm of “reality.” Only a woman who is freely herself, after all, can adequately fulfill the role of mother. Admittedly, the decision for us, as for her, is somewhat easier given the age of her children; but the bottom line is that Mimmo doesn’t want an equal partner, or even a less-than-equal partner, but only an extension of himself. Rosalba is as entitled to be a free and freely functioning human being as anyone else. Because marriage doesn’t end this entitlement, once marriage constructs a nonnegotiable barrier to exercising the entitlement, it is the marriage that must end.
Well, “of course,” one might say; but Soldini’s quietly heroic film makes just such a statement for a society and culture more used to patriarchal prerogatives, in marriage and other institutions, than ours. (Not that ours is perfect in this awareness, either.) Too, the film radiantly disperses the line between reality and fantasy at a club dance where, inspired perhaps by Krysztof Kieslowski’s Tri-Color Trilogy (1994), all sorts of the film’s characters, unbeknownst to one another, reunite on the dance floor to our quick-sighted delight.
This is a wonderful comedy, fresh, sensitive and good-natured. One performance, that of Bruno Ganz as Fernando, is superlative, and the rest of the cast is pure pleasure: Licia Maglietta as Rosalba, Marina Massironi as Grazia, Felice Andreasi as Fermo, and Giuseppe Battiston as portly Constantino. Maglietta won the best actress David di Donatello award as well as the best actress accolade from the Italian film critics. Ganz won the best actor Donatello award as well as best actor prizes at the Swiss film awards and the Pula Film Festival. Indeed, the film swept competitions, winning best film, best director, best screeplay and (for Battiston and Massironi) best supporting acting Donatellos, and winning best director, best screenplay, and best supporting acting prizes (for the same two performers) from the Italian critics.