Khristine Shares her Favorite Italian Movies and Series

Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips) (2001)

If you’ve been following this blog from the beginning, you’ve probably noticed that the movies and series I’ve chosen to write about have a commonality derived from what is actually missing. By and large, in times of darkness it’s my inclination to seek out the light rather than the dark. Early on, as the pandemic raged through their cities, the world watched and learned from the Italian people’s irrepressible spirit as they burst into song from whatever balcony or window was available to them. In that spirit, most of what I’ve been presenting to you, and where my personal tastes lie, are movies that are life-affirming in some way, and/or funny. While perhaps not a “masterpiece” of modern Italian cinema or as well-known and well-loved as Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino, award-winning, big-hearted romantic comedy Pane e Tulipani, for all its charm, joy, and quirkiness takes third place on my list of favorites.

Dreamy, soulful, accident-prone housewife Rosalba Barletta (Licia Maglietta) is touring Italy on a bus with husband Mimmo (Antonio Catania), their two sons, extended family, and work associates. As the movie opens, these very average, lively, middle-class Italian tourists straggle their way toward the steps of the ancient temple at Paestum near Salerno. They gather to hear the tour-guide’s address, and in Mimmo’s case, to chime in with inane comments. Surprisingly, the guide encourages this group of unremarkable people “to leave the train of rationality in the main station of your town for the ship of imagination, to sail the routes of ancient peoples and drink to their enthusiasm.” Here’s our first hint that we are going to see a really quirky movie, perhaps even a fairy tale.

Back on the bus, these tourists are more interested in comparing electronics, buying cookware being offered by the tour company, or zoning out on their headphones instead of pondering the advice of the guide at Paestum. Rosalba’s husband is almost a cartoon, loud, angry, insensitive, and stupid; he owns a plumbing fixture company, and it’s possible that toilets may be all that he’s capable of understanding. Their eldest son is a pragmatic type like his father, though without the rages, one-dimensional, uninteresting. Youngest son Nic (Tiziano Cucchiarelli), a dreamy, sensitive, and affectionate teenager, is more like his mother.

Like many housewives before her, Rosalba is completely taken for granted by her family. At a crowded rest stop outside of Rome, she goes to the bathroom and ends up dropping an earring in the toilet.  When she finally retrieves it, she runs outside to see the bus leaving without her. Her family has actually forgotten her, and though it’s unintentional, it reveals her lack of status in the family. When she finally gets through to her appalling husband by phone, he shouts, blames and humiliates her. Nic is the only one who seems concerned at all. Finally fed up with waiting for the bus, she hitches a ride with the first of several eccentric characters who populate the movie. Rosalba means to head home to Pescara for some quiet time before her family gets back from the bus tour, but instead, her next ride is going to Venice. This young man is too tired to be driving, and the next thing she knows, she is in the driver’s seat zooming past the Pescara exit with a smile on her face.

With little money, Rosalba checks in to a dreary Venetian pensione for one night and has the first of several vivid and funny dreams which are scattered throughout the movie. Planning to take the train home the next day, she finds an inexpensive, and again rather dreary restaurant nearby, where she meets the gentlemanly, gloomy waiter Fernando Girasole (Bruno Ganz). When she misses her train the next day he offers, with dignified courtliness, to put her up for the night in his apartment around the corner from his restaurant. Though it must be a temptation for a director filming in Venice (La Serenissima) to turn the camera on its many glories, Soldini avoids that trap, instead focusing on the small neighborhoods where the “real” Venetians live. His characters feel larger, I think, because they are not in competition with the iconic sights of the city.

The characters Rosalba meets in Venice are genuine eccentrics, and their casting is brilliant. Fernando, originally from Iceland, keeps a noose under his bed. His formal, antiquated manner results from learning Italian by reciting Orlando Furioso, the wild epic poem of the cinquecento which even features a trip to the moon. As he gets to know Rosalba better he says, “It would seem your husband is not a deep connoisseur of your soul.” Elderly garlic-chewing anarchist Fermo (Felice Andreasi) gives Rosalba a job in his flower shop, where he demands that his customers buy whatever he thinks is appropriate to the occasion. Fernando’s kooky neighbor, “Grazia Reginelli, Holistic Beautician and Masseuse,” (Marina Massironi), is both hilarious and touching. Between loud sobs, she ticks off a list of ex-boyfriends: “I’ve always had lousy luck. From the start. My first kiss was in a cemetery! His name was even Primo! He dumped me overnight for a girl who did the weather report on TV!” Chubby and asthmatic plumber and reader of detective fiction Costantino Caponangeli (Giuseppe Battiston), has a clinging, hysterical mamma who even labels his sandwiches for him. He’s been hired by Rosalba’s enraged husband to track her down and bring her back to Pescara; Mimmo has run out of ironed shirts, and his mistress has told him, “I’m not your wife!” 

But most wonderful of all the characters in this movie is the joyful, accordion-playing Rosalba herself. She is a warm-hearted, happy person, and though she confronts one difficulty after another, she faces most of them with a slightly amused, and at the same time bemused, smile playing on her lips. An unsophisticated lover of beauty, she brings exotic flowers back to Fernando’s “abode” at every opportunity. Her eccentric new friends love and understand her, and when the time comes when she really needs them, they perform an audacious intervention on her behalf. After seeing this movie for the first time, I told my husband that he should feel free to call me “Rosalba.” I really wouldn’t mind.

Pane e Tulipani earned more than thirty awards, made a clean sweep in 2001 of the Donatello Awards (considered to be “The Italian Oscars”), and was also popular in the United States. Director Silvio Soldini made several films starring Licia Maglietta (Rosalba) along with Giuseppe Battison (“Detective” Caponangeli). He also directed Days and Clouds, one of the movies I covered in Part 2, in which Battiston also appears in a supporting role. Pane e Tulipani and Agata e la Tempesta, both starring Licia Maglietta, are available on DVD from clamsnet.org with your CLAMS library card.

To check out more of Khristine’s Italian movie recommendations, check out Un Progetto Speciale – Part 8!