by Marty Demarest

It's not until Bread and Tulips is finished that questions about the film's genre arise. At first glance, Silvio Soldini's movie seems concerned enough with "important things" to merit inclusion in the group of "art" films. Plus it's in Italian. And it stars Bruno Ganz, who will forever remain in the pantheon of art cinema deities for starring in Wings of Desire.

But by the end of this tale of an Italian housewife who escapes the dull shackles of her marriage by accidentally winding up in Venice, it starts to feel like cleverly disguised Hollywood feel-good fodder.

Even though it was filmed by Italians in Italy, and was screened to great success there, one gets the feeling that Bread and Tulips was made for American audiences all along. The film's lead actress, Licia Maglietta, manages to capture every physical and psychic nuance of the contemporary middle-class Italian woman, yet she seems to be playing it less as a realistic portrait of her own country and more as a tourist attraction.

If this were the only ground on which Bread and Tulips approached Hollywood happiness, it might be a genuine art film -- more a study of the romance genre than a romance itself. But when Maglietta's character Rosalba picks up an accordion and her psychic shackles begin to come undone, you're in feel-good territory, and there's no turning back.

Which, in this case, is just fine. Maybe subtitles can actually remove the guilt from guilty pleasures. Or perhaps it's because Maglietta is sumptuously beautiful while still looking like any one of us, so that we don't feel commercially manipulated. But Bread and Tulips somehow manages to hold back the fact that it's Italy's equivalent of The Bridges of Madison County just long enough for you to fall in love with it. Even the contrived, bumbling-comedic presence of an overweight, sweaty amateur detective hired to find Rosalba doesn't ruin the illusion.

It's fortunately impossible to know for certain what genre Soldini was trying to fit into. The DVD of Bread and Tulips doesn't include a single actor, director or special effects technician commenting on the film's nature. It's just a straightforward presentation of a movie so perfectly romantic that even elitist film buffs will fall in love.

Santa Express

Through Dec. 20
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