Written by the director with Dorian Leondeff, Bread and Tulips is the story of Rosalba (Licia Maglietta), a bored housewife from the small Adriatic town of Pescara, whose husband Mimmo (Felice Andreasi) is an affluent distributor of bathroom fixtures. The picture opens on a bus tour as Rosalba, Mimmo, their two teen-age sons and sundry other friends and extended family members visit classic archaeological sites on the Italian peninsula. A day before the tour ends, the bus departs a rest stop while Rosalba is still in the bathroom, and no one aboard seems to miss her. Disoriented and hurt, she decides to hitchhike home rather than wait to be picked up after someone finally notices that she isn't aboard.
One ride leads to another, and on the spur of the moment, Rosalba decides to travel up to Venice, which she has never seen, intending to stay a single night. But one night turns into two, and pretty soon Rosalba has fallen into a whole new life, complete with a satisfying job, a kooky boss (Felice Andreasi), a good girlfriend and a budding, if chaste and unstated, romance. The film's most appealing element is its strategic understatement of the attraction that develops between Rosalba and Fernando (Bruno Ganz), the kindly waiter who lets her sleep on his sofa during her first days in Venice.
Complications, comedic and otherwise, develop from Mimmo's outraged and outrageous reaction. Rosalba both tells him what she's doing and tries to tell him why, but he routinely screams at her until she hangs up. In response, Mimmo hires a detective-novel-reading plumber named Constantino (Giuseppe Battiston) to go to Venice to bring Rosalba home. A trench coat stretched around his ample frame and an omnipresent cigarette dangling from his moist lips, Constantino shows up in the city of canals to behave like Inspector Clouseau as played by Chris Farley. But rather than serve his master, Constantino quickly joins the opposition, falling in love with Grazia (Marina Massironi), Rosalba's dingy neighbor, and deciding to remain in Venice permanently.
Lots of this is completely over the top. Mimmo is never developed as a character and is instead employed as a crude foil, a self-centered domineering husband who wants Rosalba as a domestic servant but prefers his sex with a mistress (man, oh man, is he an idiot!). In reducing Mimmo to a bellowing caricature, the picture squanders almost all hopes of emotional complexity. Constantino and Grazia are equally cartoonish and their instant romance is as contrived and unconvincing as a politician's election-eve position paper.
Licia Maglietta's brilliantly natural performance, however, saves this picture time and time again. American actors asked to do physical comedy should study her work here as an example of how much more less is. Rosalba is a klutz. She always dropping, breaking and bumping into things. But you have to watch closely because Maglietta never resorts to a belly flop, never hops around on one foot, a squeezing fist ministering to a throbbing toe. She always keeps Rosalba real, and real clumsy people are embarrassed and frustrated by their awkwardness. Maglietta's physical comedy is orchestrated to win our affections far more than to produce laughs. And it's the picture's success at making us care about Rosalba that entirely accounts for its popularity.
In the end, though, Bread and Tulips is a trifle, an hors d'oeuvre of a movie that packs little in the way of nourishment. Compare it to Vittorio de Sica's enduringly insightful A Brief Vacation (1973), another story about an Italian housewife who finds spiritual romance and refuge from a brutish husband and family. De Sica's film isn't better because it's sadder and more pessimistic about the human condition, though it is certainly both of those things. A Brief Vacation is the superior work because it takes human relationships seriously. Though I fall utterly in love with Licia Maglietta watching Bread and Tulips, I leave the picture unsettled that Rosalba abandons her family like a torn housedress. Sure her husband is a jerk. And, yes, her kids are fundamentally grown and aggravatingly distant. But human connections are far more complicated than they are depicted in this movie. They aren't like garments that can be worn out and blithely discarded. Even bad families form bonds. And even good families leave scars.