For her first review, Caitlin Palo looks back on a little Italian gem about life’s simple beauties (re: bread, tulips) and the instruments one might use to uncover them.

Despite the fact that the heroine of Pane e Tulipani is 39, her love interest is a grandfather, probably in his late fifties, and the plot hinges on the premise of a failed marriage, this was my favorite movie when I was fifteen. What about these middle age Italians won me over, convinced me to force this movie on my friends, buy the soundtrack, spend my small allowance on tulips which wilt much faster than the movie led me to believe, and imagine I’d grow up to be Rosalba?  In high school I recognized the implausibility of fulfilling the dream to run away to Venice, and I was uneasy with Rosalba’s too-easy abandonment of her husband and sons.  Applying all the wisdom of my 25 year-old graduate-school-summertime theorizing to my 15-year-old self, I worked through my eroded memories of this film and tried to find what granted it the honorable title of “favorite” and to form a hypothesis of whether I would enjoy it now, 8 years after the last time I saw it.

Rosalba and her family — two sons and an unromantic philandering plumber of a husband — are on a tour bus seeing the great sights of Italy. This is a bonafide package deal: the droning tourguide, the fannypack, the pots-and-pans sales on the bus, and the chain diner/reststop where Rosalba is left behind when she takes too long in the bathroom fumbling after the earing she dropped into the toilet.  I distinctly remembered her attempt to fish the jewelry (superficial beauty—I labeled it) with an oversized gimmick pencil.  Clearly this movie is about the attempt to express and communicate beauty, but not having the refined instruments to do so: only blunt tools to fumble after it.  And I don’t think this reading of the film is entirely wrong.  Even the opening tourguide monologue confirms this theme:

 In the year 273 BC, when the Romans came here and encountered the Greeks here for the first time, history took a huge leap forward.  What do I mean by that? Greek Idealism, a civilization of music and philosophy, and Roman pragmatism, a civilization of law and rationality, blended perfectly to create a new culture that forms the basis of Western civilization, of which we Italians, the greatest people on earth, should be heirs. [here, the husband checks his watch — a pragmatist through and through] Our blood contains the genes of Greeks and Romans, the greatest civilizations of all time.  These genes are what urge you to leave the train of rationality in the main station of your town…for the ships of imagination to sail the routes of ancient peoples and to drink their enthusiasm.

Only, the bus leaves Rosalba. She desperately waves after the bus and tries to call her husband who has changed his phone number (aha! foiled communication with devices that don’t quite fulfill the desire that created them).  Her family does notice she is missing and her husband calls to berate her for being the one who got left behind.  He demands she wait there for the tourbus, but as she waits something changes and she hops in a car with a woman more klutzy than herself to begin hitchhiking home to Pescara for a few days alone to get things done. The driver of the second car she gets into asks her to drive, and as he sleeps she drives straight past the Pescara exit and on to Venice to visit for the first time.  There, she plans to stay for only a day, but misses the train.  This time a smile of relief pokes through her slight despair at missing another departure. That evening she is taken in by Fernando, the gruff elderly waiter at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant and the next day she takes a job in a florist shop owned by an old anarchist.

Back in Pescara, her husband is a mess.  The coffee machine doesn’t work and his mistress refuses to iron his shirts.  So he hires a pudgy plumber with a passion for detective novels to go play private eye and retrieve Rosalba from Venice.  Somehow I had utterly forgotten Constantino Maria Caponangeli, who now seems to me to be both the comedic ballast against the weighty poetic metaphors Rosalba and her host/soon-to-be lover exchange and the thematic thread that links together this movie.

The pragmatic and the romantic are blended together into the bumbling plumber-cum-detective.  He lives out his dream by carefully plotting maps of Venice and going door-to-door in retail shops looking for his target.  Unlike Rosalba’s discovery of a charmed Venetian life, Constantin is taken in by a sleazy (but not threatening) hotelier who demands money up front for a rundown houseboat in a back-alley canal.  As he practices his amateur skills trying to find Rosalba, she takes up a small detective project of her own: trying to figure out Fernando by stalking him through the canals.  Less overt than the repetition of dodging behind corners and over bridges is the uncovering of Rosalba herself.  She persuades the anarchist florist to hire her by explaining, “I have a green thumb, my father was a gardener,” and later tells Fernando that she learned to play the accordion from her grandfather.  Her passionate genes slowly surface.

While my theory of the theme that attracted me to this movie is not disproved, on rewatching I am reminded that what I loved then, and again now, is the quiet scenes of joy and pleasure.  Moments with her new friend Grazia Reginelli, Holistic Beautician and Masseuse (that first title gives another almost-heavy-handed hint at the theme), playing a waltz on the accordion, the breakfast laid out on the table, birds-of-paradise in a vase: these are the scenes I remembered, even as I forgot the delight of Constantin, of Grazia, of Fernando’s mystery.

I’m still not certain what to make of Rosalba’s easy departure from homelife in Pescara.  Her husband is granted no redeeming factors by the writers; he is callous, clueless, and passionate only about plumbing.  He is the thinnest character in the movie, which enhances, rather than relieves, my unease with the way Rosalba treats him.  But this movie doesn’t try to solve that.  It is a detective story that doesn’t try to explain the things people do to each other — abandon, deceive, kill — but instead tries to open up other mysteries for enjoyment — love, friendship, music, beauty.

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