‘Bitter Rice’ will be shown at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago on Tuesday, November 29th at 6:00 P.M.
Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro) (Italy, 1949) is a smoldering rural melodrama combining the near-documentary style of postwar Italian Neo-Realism, operatic psychological emotionalism, and an American streak of noir-ish crime thriller intrigue.
Francesca (Doris Dowling) has fallen in with handsome but surly small-time criminal Walter (Vittorio Gassman). They’re trying to get out of the city, by train, with a stolen necklace, but the police are in pursuit. It’s early May, and the train station is packed with migrant working women making the yearly trip to weed and plant the rice fields of northern Italy. Walter can’t shake his pursuers, so he instructs Francesca to take the necklace, hop the train, and join the women working the rice fields – he’ll come find her after the heat’s off.
En route, Francesca meets the tough but gorgeous village girl Silvana (Silvana Mangano) who drew a lot of attention at the station with her sexy forthrightness, including Walter’s. After some early disagreements and entanglements, Francesca and Silvana become friends, and we learn their stories and backgrounds, as well as those of a number of the other working women. Also in the mix is Marco (Raf Vallone), an army sergeant who has vacated the barracks that the women live in during the season, but still stays nearby with the rest of his unit. It’s he who helps Francesca and Silvana solve their early conflicts, and he takes an amiable interest in them throughout. When Walter finally tracks down Francesca, he camps out in one of the storage barns, and plots another big swindle that throws all four of them into conflict.
The story is capably and unobtrusively shot – surprisingly, this was only De Santis’ third feature. There are a number of crowd scenes – the train station, the workers in the fields, in their barracks, and having a few parties – and they’re admirably managed by De Santis; he only rarely leaves the constant activities of the workers to enact scenes between the principals – there are always things churning around them, and De Santis constantly underlines the importance, nobility and sacrifices of the ubiquitous working women. There’s a real trust and camaraderie that develops among them over the course of the film, only interrupted by the machinations of the interloper Walter.
The film was also an early effort for some impressive Italian acting veterans. Vittorio Gassman makes a terrific villain in the James M. Cain mold – it’s hard for us to grasp how these two women could be swayed by him, but we’re not particularly surprised, either – a handsome smooth talker, he can turn dominatingly cruel at the drop of a hat, a classic Bad Boy. Silvana Mangano became one of Italy’s more famous bombshells over the 50s and 60s, but she had real acting chops as well. This was her first lead role, and she makes the most of it. The striking American Doris Dowling was also seen in Billy Wilder’s ‘The Lost Weekend’ and ‘The Blue Dahlia’ with Alan Ladd, did a number of films in Europe (including Orson Welles’ ‘Othello’), then returned to the U.S. primarily as a stage and TV actress (she was also one of jazzman Artie Shaw’s many wives, his 7th). And Raf Vallone was a handsome and rugged actor who worked constantly as a lead and character actor, from here all the way through the nineties.
It’s not screened very often, and I don’t believe it’s available on DVD, so this is a great, rare chance to see a true Italian classic that’s undeservedly fading from regard. I highly recommend it.