I have heard it said that there are three universal human fears: shame, losing control, and being abandoned. Since our story begins as housewife Rosalba Barletta (Licia Maglietta) is forgotten by her family and tour bus at a rest stop and then abusively chided for allowing herself to be left behind, we ought to have a heroine with some traumas to work through.
Good. Traumas usually make for a rich narrative.
Not in the case of “Pane e Tulipani” (“Bread and Tulips”), however. In this weak Italian porridge from director/writer Silvio Soldini, our heroine passively nods at her abandonment and continues on her way, relatively undisturbed. Rosalba travels on her own to Venice, takes a job, and ultimately leaves her husband and family for a love affair with an elderly waiter Fernando Girasoli (Bruno Ganz).
If this were the great feminist film “Thelma and Louise,” Rosalba would create marvelous adventures for herself and find sexual and personal freedom, if only for a tragic end. If this were Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” Rosalba would painfully struggle with her duties to family and husband, only to leave in a cloud of ambivalent shame and guilt. If this were a fictionalized tale of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” Rosalba would defiantly reject her domestic existence of cleaning, mending and caring in which she was merely an unpaid servant.
In another story, Rosalba’s reaction to leaving family and husband for travel, work and romance would either be elation, guilt or a deeply felt political statement. Indeed, a brilliant writer might have woven these together into a rich tapestry of ambivalence and complexity. That would have been one terrific film.
“Bread and Tulips,” however, is not that film. It is mediocre at best. Though it makes nods towards depth, suggesting that it’s never too late for love, that work is ennobling, and that a mediated life (through the pictures that Rosalba is always taking) is less satisfying than a genuinely engaged one, the film fails to commit to its own message.
Furthermore, the film does not commit to its style. Even in its Fellini-esque moments (reminiscent mostly of his brilliant “Juliet of the Spirits”), in which Rosalba dreams of her family as grotesques, the film does not embrace its own fantasy, dropping these dreams like teasers and never taking them to a surreal-enough level to matter to the narrative or audience.
After Rosalba travels to Venice, she meets a quirky cast of characters (what road-trip/personal-awakening movie would be complete without them?) including her boss at the greenhouse (a crotchety delight of a genius), her holistic practitioner neighbor (who, like everyone else in this film, eventually finds love), and a quiet waiter (who lets Rosalba sleep in his apartment for free). Added to the mix is an Italian Chris Farley (Giuseppe Battiston) as Costantino, the amateur detective hired by Rosalba’s husband to find her in Venice.
Though none of the acting is terrible, the narrative doles out McPasts to these characters, substituting clich*s for depth. Fernando, the waiter, mentions briefly that he was once in jail, and tries to commit suicide on several occasions (motive: he has to have a dark past so Rosalba’s love for him can have a life-saving, redemptive value). Grazia (Marina Massironi), the holistic practitioner, has had horrible experiences with men (motive: so she can be paired with the unattractive and oddly-behaved Costantino, whose non-horribleness is his only attractive quality). Costantino has an overbearing (read: extremely Italian) mother (motive: so his escape to Venice can also be a liberation, like Rosalba’s, like Fernando’s, like Grazia’s–we get it already!).
And lest there be any ends not tied together, Rosalba’s husband has a mistress. So he won’t be too sad or lonely after the film’s end when Rosalba has left. Heaven forbid that anyone in this film suffer or deal with the genuine repercussions of a woman’s escape and liberation from the shackles of family! More than a narrative failing, it is a genuine moral shame that the director and writers chose not to explore more fully the complex decision to leave the life that one has known in pursuit of freedom and fantasy. That story can be told with humor, it doesn’t have to be morose; but the balance of whimsy and depth takes a great skill that is not evident here.
Indeed, that Platonic ideal of a story is nearly reached in a film that few have seen: the 1989 “Shirley Valentine” (directed by Lewis Gilbert). Shirley, a Liverpool housewife, bored with her life and domineering husband, escapes to Greece for a short vacation. She finds passion and meaning, and of course she never returns to her former life.
The differences between “Shirley Valentine” and “Bread and Tulips” are numerous. Shirley’s life at home is shown in all its mundaneness; Rosalba’s is merely glimpsed, so we don’t really know or care why she’s running away. Shirley is introspective and conscious of her liberation; Rosalba is endearing in a Bridget Jones sort of way, but she is not a woman who inspires.
And finally, though all women-running-away movies have their sexy-man-who-sexually-awakens-heroine (Thelma and Louise had Brad Pitt; Shirley Valentine had a Mediterranean hunk; Rosalba has her quiet Fernando), it is the success of some of these films that the women look beyond finding a new man for meaning in their new life. “Bread and Tulips” opens itself up to a feminist criticism because it makes nods at the tradition of movies in which women find themselves and freedom, but ultimately fails at even this political success. Shirley Valentine loves and leaves her Romeo, knowing that work, freedom and independence will save her, not a man’s caresses.
Rosalba, however, at the end of “Bread and Tulips,” retreats to husband and family and boredom, only returning to her paradise when her new man comes to claim her.
That is not an enlightened ending; at best, it is romantic sap.