Friday, May 27, 2011

Bread and Tulips

Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips) (2000)
Dir. Silvio Soldini
Starring Licia Maglietta, Bruno Ganz

Bread and Tulips is the kind of movie I don't watch very much. It's a straightforward little Italian drama/comedy about love, responsibility, travel, fulfillment, being a florist, and so on. It's one of those movies that you know is going to be well-made and entertaining, but just can't get too excited about in a world where there exist movies about giant robots, lesbian vampire covens, 3D cave art, etc. There's a certain demographic out there that loves this type of film, but to tell you the truth I bet not a lot of them watched it. Because that demographic is "people persons" who typically can find the company of actual people and hence eliminate the need to drink cheap scotch and watch Z-grade horror movies alone on a Friday night. This is the kind of movie that requires that you're interested in the characters and their feelings, and that's not the easiest sell in the world.

So I don't watch this sort of deal that much. It's not particularly alluring to my usual filmatic inclinations, nor is it artistically or historically interesting enough to pique my interests. Just a simple little story about a nice lady who comes to a crossroads in her life with the help of a few likeable quirky characters.

If it was an American film, it would be one of those obnoxious rom-coms with the shrill comic relief and the gorgeous big-name stars barely even pretending to be older and burnt out. But being a foreign film, it doesn't seem quite as desperate and gaudy. Its a little slow, a little sad, a little quiet, a little surreal. It's not about young people or beautiful people, there's no twist, not much at stake. Its got some laughs but its not desperate to get a laugh every few minutes. It's even OK with a little moral ambiguity.

Basically the story is this: Rosalba (Licia Maglietta), A housewife with two teenage kids and a husband in the plumbing supply industry gets mistakenly left behind on vacation, HOME ALONE 2-style. It's an honest mistake and she's not super mad about it, but its just irritating and insulting enough that she decides to leave the family hanging and hitchhike home. This one small act of independence and selfishness sparks something in her. Something small and quiet and unfocused, but rebellious enough to take control of her and send her to Venice (motto: "Non preoccupatevi il nano nel cappotto rosso" ["don't bother the dwarf in the red coat"]), where she's never been before, without much money and without a clear plan except to not go back home quite yet.

She ends up staying with this lonesome handsome mysterious gentleman with a charmingly formal way of speaking, so we can all see where this is going. But in some ways, its kinda fun to see a basic romantic comedy plot which is set in something like the real world and takes its characters seriously. There's a scene early on where our heroine unknowing disrupts her housemate's attempt at suicide by hanging. Bet you won't see that in the American remake.

The remake would also insist on making the family she's leaving behind a bunch of nasty ingrates who learn to appreciate her only when she's gone. I like that this version (I'm preempting the inevitable remake by just calling it the “original” version) doesn't really play up that angle. It's true that her family doesn't really appreciate her, but then again she doesn't much appreciate herself either-- or have much going on-- so its easy to see why. When she's gone, they're perplexed and a little annoyed, but not more than is reasonable. They're inconvenienced but they get on with their lives about as well as you could expect them to. The husband's kind of a blowhard but not cartoonishly so; he's pretty much got his life set up the way he wants it, and is mostly confused that suddenly his wife has other ideas about what she needs for herself.

This shifts the blame, slightly; the problem isn't that Rosalba is under appreciated, it's that she doesn't appreciate the life she's living. Not that she has any reason to, but it's not like that life was forced on her. She's been drifting through her life going through the motions and never asking herself if it was good for her or not. Now, she wants a chance to figure out who she really is and what she really wants, but things are complicated by the fact that she's got a whole life of responsibilities already. It's kind of the other side of KRAMER VS. KRAMER. Actress Maglietta tells most of the story with her face, which has the odd look of someone who could be interesting but hasn't been interested in anything in a long time. It's the look of someone waking up from a dream and gradually becoming aware of the world again, and it gives the movie a solid foundation of quiet excitement instead of bitterness at time wasted.

The film's ace, though, is Giuseppe Battiston as a nebbish plumber who the husband hires based on the “hobbies” section of his resume. He's an avid reader of detective fiction, and hubby figures he'll work cheaper than an actual detective to find out what the heck his wife is up to in Venice. Battiston plays it a little broader than the rest of the film, but he's a hoot as he takes to his new detective role by chain-smoking cigarettes in a trench coat, hat, and dark glasses (even the cinematography subtly changes to emphasize his noirish aspirations). It's a funny concept which plays out pretty perfectly and adds some levity to things.

Anyway, there's not a lot here; she has some small but meaningful experiences, learns a little about herself, meets some quirky characters. That plot could and does describe plenty of terrible movies. But this happens to be one which does that plot thoughtfully and with some careful but not flashy craftsmanship. It may not be the easiest sell to a guy like me, but I gotta admit I enjoyed it. Probably worth watching this kind of thing from time to time, if only to be reminded that sometimes all you need is a person with an interesting face and a little time to figure herself out.

PS: Nicholas Roeg was right, though, off-season Venice is creepy as fuck. Luckily the film doesn't try to play it up as some romantic icon, but I don't know if it's intended to come off quite as much like a post-apocalyptic ghost town populated by delusional psychotics. It does give the film a kind of surreal quality, though, which keeps it from getting too cloying.

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