‘Bread and Tulips,’ a rom-com about self-discovery, screens at Woodmere


Who hasn’t, at one point or another, dreamt of escaping the drudgery and disappointments of their daily life and starting fresh? Whether it’s quitting a soul-crushing job or leaving a toxic relationship, making a radical change and finding oneself in the process is a powerful concept.

This is the theme that drives “Bread and Tulips,” the Italian romantic comedy on screen March 26 as part of The Chestnut Hill Film Group’s “Tuesday Nights at the Movies” program at Woodmere Art Museum.

At the beginning of this sweet and whimsical 2000 romantic fable, housewife Rosalba (played by Licia Maglietta) finds herself stranded at a rest stop on a family vacation, a bus tour of Italy. Isolated and ignored at home by a cheating husband and children who don't seem to need her anymore, Rosalba makes the impulsive decision not to wait to be picked up, but to head home on her own - but not before a detour to visit Venice. Once there, however, the city casts its spell on her. Testing the boundaries of her newfound freedom, Rosalba takes a job with anarchist florist Fermo (Felice Andreasi) and develops friendships with new age masseuse Grazia (Marina Massironi) and a waiter at a local restaurant – the mysterious older Fernando (Bruno Ganz). In the meantime, Rosalba’s husband Mimmo (Antonio Catania), tired of having to iron his own shirts, has hired the hapless Costantino (Giuseppe Battison) to find his wife and bring her home.

Since at its heart this is a romantic comedy, we can be fairly sure everything will work out as it’s supposed to, but along the way, there are bittersweet moments and lots of twists and turns. There is also emotional depth as Rosalba explores a budding romance with Fernando, played by Ganz, the Swiss powerhouse known for his collaborations with Werner Herzog, Éric Rohmer, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wim Wenders. While Ganz brings pathos to the melancholy Fernando, Maglietta imbues Rosalba with warmth and emotional intelligence. It’s not easy for her to shirk her responsibilities back home, and Maglietta makes us feel the conflict within. Rosalba’s emotional state is underscored by surrealistic dreams (reminiscent of Fellini’s 1965 “Juliet of the Spirits”) in which her family plays a starring role. 

The supporting cast is likewise excellent, and co-writer and director Silvio Soldini gives Rosalba’s eccentric and bohemian found family enough nuance that they are more than just props against which the central characters play. The film was an enormous hit in Italy and swept the 2000 David di Donatello awards – Italy's equivalent of the Oscar – winning nine awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay.

The concept of a woman realizing she’s been “settling” and doing something about it has been fertile ground for filmmakers over the years: 1989’s “Shirley Valentine” explored a similar theme. Movies like these give audiences protagonists who reflect the universal yearning for a fulfilling life – one of  meaning, intimacy, and even adventure and romance. We wholeheartedly root for Rosalba as she takes her tentative first steps toward self-determination, rediscovering and reinventing herself along the way. 

If ever in doubt that Bread and Tulips is ultimately a movie about the importance of feeding one’s soul, look no further than its title, which improbably hearkens back to the US suffrage movement. In 1910, American voting rights and labor activist Helen Todd gave a speech in which she called for a “time when life's Bread – which is home, shelter, and security – and the Roses of life – music, education, nature, and books – shall be the heritage of every child.” Inspired by the sentiment, poet James Oppenheimer published “Bread and Roses” the following year. Its stanza, “Hearts starve as well as bodies; Give us bread but give us roses too,” was taken up as a rallying cry for workers’ rights in 1912. Since then, the poem has been set to music several times, including a version written by Mimi Fariña which provides a particularly affecting moment in the 2014 film, “Pride.”

While the flower in question may be different in this film, the sentiment is the same. In Bread and Tulips, Rosalba is fighting for her life, one that provides more than mere physical nourishment, but also spiritual sustenance. Along the way, she discovers an unused part of herself and, like the film’s titular blooms, blossoms before our eyes.

Bread and Tulips (114 minutes, Italian with English subtitles) will screen at 7 p.m. on March 26 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave. The screening is free, but donations are gratefully appreciated. 

(Lily Williams is director of development at Woodmere Art Museum)