All but ignored by her mistress-accessorized husband and aging out of her role as full-time mother to two late-teen sons, Rosalba (Licia Maglietta) feels as if she’s been left behind. That’s certainly the case when her tour bus decamps from a rest station on the Adriatic coast without her during a family holiday, off to its next stop while she fishes after her dropped wedding ring in a toilet bowl. Once her apoplectic spouse, Mimmo (Antonio Catania), discovers she’s missing, he arranges for a pickup, but—seizing the chance to flush her marriage—Rosalba splits for scenic Venice. The deserted wife would like more time in the desert. Rosalba soon enters into a tentative romance with a suicidal Icelandic waiter (Bruno Ganz) and bonds with her wacky masseuse neighbor (Marina Massironi), who in turn falls for the portly, inept private investigator (Giuseppe Battiston) whom Mimmo has hired to track down his wife.
Presentation goes a long way here. Director Silvio Soldini and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi move deftly from a garish tourist-brochure palette to serene blues and grays once Rosalba is confidently navigating the stone pathways of Venice on her own. But Bread and Tulips strands its beatific heroine far too early in the going—the psychology and household dynamics precipitating her flight remain a needlessly frustrating mystery for much of the poky narrative, though there’s no shortage of anemic comic detours, discombobulating dream sequences, and liberazione. Rosalba’s hair piles atop her head Bardot-style; her face seizes with forgotten raptures as she rediscovers the accordion. A happy ending is never at issue here—it’s clear where she’s going, but there’s little clue where she’s been.