Rosalba (Licia Maglietta) is a loving, attentive wife and mother whose teenage sons no longer need her and whose husband, Mimmo (Antonio Catania), takes her for granted. Hurt and angry when she is abandoned on their vacation, she determines not to catch up with the family but to hitchhike home instead. Never having seen Venice, she stops there on her way -- and so loves the city she decides to stay.
She gets a job in a florist shop (the owner is a political anarchist whose cantankerous attitude toward customers is reflected in the store's poor sales) and shares an apartment with a courtly, wistfully melancholy waiter named Fernando (played by the wonderful Bruno Ganz, perhaps best known to American audiences for his work in two Wim Wenders films, Wings of Desire in 1987 and The American Friend in 1977). Fernando's hangdog expression and Old World manners both touch and amuse her. For the first time in a long time, Rosalba is happy. Her own generosity of spirit is appreciated -- and reciprocated -- by her new nucleus of rather eccentric friends, which also includes Grazia, a lovelorn masseuse who lives in the adjoining apartment.
Things aren't running half so smoothly back home, however. Rosalba's kids are fine but her bombastic, narcissistic husband is completely incapable -- or, more accurately, unwilling -- to take care of himself. It isn't that he yearns for his wife's company; he simply misses all the cooking, cleaning, and ironing she did for him.
Knowing only that Rosalba is somewhere in Venice, Mimmo, the head of a plumbing supply business, dispatches a bumbling, out-of-work plumber to find her. Constantino (Giuseppe Battiston), who still lives with his mother and probably dreams of spreading his own wings a bit, takes his assignment very seriously. He canvasses the city, applying the methods he has picked up from the detective novels he reads so avidly. Fernando sees the wanted posters of Rosalba that Constantine has posted around Venice and he begins to wonder just who it is he has let into his apartment.
Bread and Tulips is a charming little film, filled with unconventional characters and ingratiating performances. Maglietta is appealing as an attractive, exceedingly personable woman who thinks of herself as ordinary, while Battiston has a winning combination of klutziness, earnestness, and shy longing, along with a Boy Scout's sense of duty and honor. That he manages not to get lost in Venice is a testament to an indomitable will and just plain dumb luck.
Early in the film there is a particularly funny moment that hints at the direction the story will go. Rosalba has hitched a ride from the rest stop where she has been so unceremoniously dumped. The car she is in passes a vehicle with a mother and father in the front seat and an adolescent boy in the back. The boy is holding a sign up to the window. It reads, "New parents wanted."