by Ray Pride

Movie romances that feature mature characters facing adult situations are all too rare in American movies. Even a genial comedy like Kate and Leopold finds a charming actress like Meg Ryan, in her 40s, still pretending to be in her 30s.

It's assumed the audience for movies about older characters is at home, watching a video or satellite TV, keeping track of the kids, the grandkids. But it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn't it? A grown-up moviegoer can't go to movies that don't exist. That's why a film like Todd Field's In the Bedroom is so gratifying, a modest and simple story of emotions that wrench the heart and will wrench all of our lives at some point: loss, grief, choices to be made. The movie's grossed more than $20 million so far, and its Oscar nominations should guarantee an even greater audience.

Then there are the unexpected, offbeat hits like Bread and Tulips (Pane e Tulipani), a slight, farcical yet charming daydream of an Italian romantic comedy. No American studio could make a dent on their interest payments with the amount of money this sweet film has made, yet for the past year it has charmed audiences in cities across America.

Rosalba (Licia Maglietto) is an Italian housewife and mother of two teenage sons who has a fantasy. It's a wistful memory of the road not taken. Since she loses track of Mimmo, her boorish, philandering husband, while on a family vacation and impulsively hitchhikes to Venice, it might be the via or more to the point, la vita not taken. (She loses her wedding ring in the toilet of the rest stop where her odyssey begins, symbolically parting her from her plumbing fixture salesman cad of a mate.) As with the sweet conclusion to the upcoming Italian for Beginners, the Adriatic canals of Venice are a romantic symbol that twinkles (and dares you to twinkle in return) in each and every scene. Why can't life be a permanent vacation? Or, as the original English language title went, why can't we all be "hopelessly romantic"?

In director Silvio Soldini's fantasy, Rosalba confesses her predicament to the waiter who serves her, and he offers her a room in his flat. Fernando is a dour, even suicidal, yet charming Icelander, played by the wry, venerable Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. Ganz has an unforgettable face, now weathered by time, that has always been one filled with extreme melancholy, such as in his role as an angel in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. In an earlier film, one critic described him as "the perfect raincoat man" -- sad, solitary and beautiful.

Ganz's Fernando is a sweet contrast to Rosalba's husband, who doesn't really notice her absence, at least until the laundry piles up and he dispatches a hefty but incompetent detective to trail Rosalba, who then reports back to Mimmo, who's equally distracted by liaisons with his mistress. Sadly, cross-cutting to this big boob only weights down Rosalba's souffl & eacute; of self-discovery. This movie could never be made in the U.S. -- Rosalba isn't reprimanded for being immoral for acting on her desires, and she never has big speeches explaining everything that we should already be feeling through the storytelling. This is an Italian fantasy through and through.

The apartment house and the city are filled with wacky characters who are there to change her life, but Italian movies are not American sitcoms. Unlike what we'd get between commercial breaks, there's heart and soul in most of Soldini's complications.

Rosalba doesn't miss her old life at all. What better way to bloom than to take a job in an anarchist's flower shop? Her new friends include a holistic masseuse, who starts playing the accordion again. Middle-aged and sheltered in a youthful Bohemian dream -- Fernando won't accept rent when she turns out to be broke -- Rosalba learns that it's better to be happy than to be bourgeois. Reminiscent of more contrived cable favorites like Shirley Valentine, it's the kind of wish-fulfillment journey with lived-in warmth that will satisfy some, while others will find the sentiments all-too-familiar.

Still, Bread and Tulips is endearing, and Fernando's courtly language while romancing Rosalba is some of the most sweetly dumb flirtation you'll ever read in subtitles. Bread and Tulips is a daydream, but I like it. The message isn't "live for the moment," it's "live now."

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