At the beginning of ”Bread and Tulips,” a tour guide delivers a lecture on ancient history to a gaggle of Italian tourists gathered at a ruined temple. As he eloquently invokes the proud Greco-Roman heritage that is the birthright of all Italians — ”the greatest people in history” — the camera quietly subverts his argument, presenting the modern-day heirs of Greece and Rome in all their noisy, materialistic vulgarity.
Silvio Soldini’s amiable new comedy suggests that an older, better Italy of imagination, rationality and civility survives on the fringes of a modern nation obsessed, like most others, with consumerism, empty prosperity and easy pleasure. That other Italy exists, according to the film, in Venice, a city whose narrow streets and quiet canals make it the perfect home for gentle eccentrics and good-hearted bohemians. The city serves as a refuge for Rosalba Barretto (Licia Maglietta), an unhappy housewife from Pescara who, along with her husband and teenage sons, is one of the tourists in the first scene. After the tour bus leaves a highway rest area without her, Rosalba impulsively hitchhikes to Venice, where she finds kindness, mystery and opportunities for self-expression — everything that had been missing from her ordinary life.
The blossoming of a bored, middle-class homemaker is hardly a new subject; ”Bread and Tulips” calls to mind, among other things, at least a half-dozen episodes of ”The Simpsons.” But unlike Marge, who always returns, with relief as well as regret, to her husband and children, Rosalba provokes very little ambivalence with her flight. Mr. Soldini, who wrote the screenplay with Doriana Leondeff, has made Rosalba’s husband, a plumbing-supply mogul named Mimmo (Antonio Catania), a hotheaded, narcissistic buffoon, and a philanderer to boot.
It is easy to see why she prefers the company of Fernando (Bruno Ganz), a melancholy waiter from Iceland who gives her a spare room in his cluttered Venice apartment and prepares her breakfast every morning.
The film’s contrast between the warmth of bohemia and the sterile stultification of bourgeois life is sentimental and a little phony, expressed mostly by consumer and lifestyle choices. When Rosalba casts aside her maroon stretch pants, silver jacket and orange sneakers for a simple red-and-white dress and a pair of espadrilles with platform soles, we’re meant to see that she has burst from her ugly tourist chrysalis and become a radiant bohemian butterfly.
But is buying a new dress really a liberation from materialism? And why should living in Venice and working as a florist (as Rosalba eventually does) or a massage therapist or a waiter represent an intrinsically more authentic and spiritually evolved way of life than selling bathroom fixtures in Pescara? Thankfully, Ms. Maglietta has a quiet charm and an understated sexiness that disarm your skepticism. The other actors — Marina Massironi as her New Agey neighbor, Giuseppe Massironi as the plumber-cum-private detective dispatched by Mimmo to bring Rosalba home, and especially Mr. Ganz — are equally sweet and soulful.
The Venice of ”Bread and Tulips,” which opens today at the Paris, is like a less threatening version of the SoHo in Martin Scorsese’s ”After Hours” — a place that doesn’t really exist but that nourishes our fantasy that somewhere, not too far from where we plod through our uninspiring routines, life is more varied, more intense, more genuine and surprising. We traipse into this magical world as tourists, but Mr. Soldini, with graceful good humor, invites us to pretend that we’re natives.