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It took no fewer than seven people to write Bitter Rice (1949), one of the most imaginative Italian movies of its day. Films scripted by committees have a way of losing clarity and focus - coordinating creative writers can be like herding cats - but this one is a great exception to the rule. Thanks to the inventiveness of director Giuseppe De Santis and the smoldering performances of a sensational cast, the picture taps into a variety of moods, storylines, and even genres, remaining crisp and coherent all the way. The neorealist movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s produced more prolific and consistent directors than De Santis, but Bitter Rice would guarantee his place in Italian film history if he had made nothing else. It's the movie he was born to create, even if he did need a lot of assistance in the writing department.
Known as Riso Amaro in its native Italy, the film was shot on location near Vercelli, one of the country's prime rice-growing regions. It begins with a burst of helpful exposition, delivered to the camera by a smooth-talking man who turns out to be a journalist doing a radio report. Like regions of China and India that have similar climates, he informs us, northern Italy has cultivated a large number of rice paddies for centuries. Veritable armies of workers are needed to tend them, he continues, and most of them are women because only small and nimble hands can efficiently handle the necessary tasks. The reporter's brief lecture accomplishes two important things: giving background information about the film's milieu, and subtly suggesting the hypocrisy of an industry that prefers female workers because - as the film proceeds to demonstrate - they're easier to exploit, not because their hands are daintier.
The main characters then arrive. Walter (Vittorio Gassman) is a petty crook who has talked his girlfriend Francesca (Doris Dowling) into stealing a valuable necklace from a guest at the hotel where she works. The cops are on his trail, so he pushes Francesca and the necklace onto a train crowded with women en route to the countryside for a few weeks of employment in the planting season. Francesca lacks the documents required for the job, but a worker named Silvana (Silvana Mangano) helps her get hired as an "illegal," so she sets to work in the fields, figuring she'll earn a few lire while waiting for Walter to come and fetch her. Complications ensue when the two women meet Marco (Raf Vallone), a soldier on the lookout for romance. When the shifty Walter finally does show up, his devious mind immediately cooks up a scheme to steal the harvested rice, even though this would inflict misery on the hard-working women.
De Santis shared the left-wing sentiments held by most neorealist filmmakers, and his sympathy for the overworked, underpaid workers is front and center in the story. He has a fairly nuanced view of the situation, though. Instead of showing automatic solidarity based on their gender and socioeconomic class, for instance, the rice-field women are sharply divided by their employment status; therefore Francesca can't comfortably do her new job until she overcomes resentment from documented workers who see the illegals as competitors and scabs - a class-based conflict that still exists in the United States and elsewhere. A breach among the women also arises when a rainstorm threatens to shut down the harvesting for days. Some respond to this disappointment with fatalistic despair, others with a fresh burst of energy and determination. Story elements like these raise Bitter Rice above simplistic formulas.
The film's structure is unpredictable as well, oscillating among all sorts of formats. It's a documentary when the reporter supplies facts about the rice industry; it's a romantic drama when Silvana, Marco, Francesca, and Walter form a volatile love quadrangle; it's a comedy when men and women find ways of getting together without the foremen finding out; it's a musical when the laborers express their feelings by singing rather than speaking while they work; it's a buddy movie when Silvana and Francesca trade gossip about their experiences; it's a thriller when Walter pursues his plans for larceny; and it's a tragedy when deadly violence erupts at the end. De Santis holds all this together via Otello Martelli's eloquent camerawork, rich in expressive tracking shots and deep-focus compositions, and Gabrieli Varriale's razor-sharp editing, which moves the action quickly and seamlessly along. The variety of the plot also owes a lot to the many writers who worked on it. De Santis devised the story with Carlo Lizzani and Gianni Puccini; they and three others have screenplay credit; and some (including Mario Monicelli, well into his own directing career by this time) wrote dialogue or served as uncredited writers. It would probably be impossible to sort out which contributors came up with which ideas, but the only thing that really matters is the success of the finished product.
De Santis served part of his apprenticeship as one of the writers (only six!) who penned Luchino Visconti's lust-and-murder classic Ossessione in 1943, and while Bitter Rice is not as grim and brooding as that pioneering neorealist film, it has a similar intensity at times. Kudos go to all the actors. Mangano, once a real-life Miss Italia contestant, has more than enough beauty and charisma to play the winner of the Miss Rice Field contest held during the story's climax. American actress Doris Dowling, who had recently portrayed alcoholic characters in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) and George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia (1946), is wiry and supple as Francesca, the small-time thief who decides to go straight. Gassman and Vallone, both in the early phases of their illustrious careers, couldn't be better as Walter and Marco, respectively. And the supporting cast is uniformly fine. Bitter Rice doesn't quite reach the lofty neorealist summit where masterpieces like Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (1948) and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) reside, but it delivers high-octane drama, interesting sociology, and resourceful cinema. Few who see it will forget it soon.
Director: Giuseppe De Santis
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Screenplay: Corrado Alvaro, Giuseppe De Santis, Caro Lizzani, Carlo Musso, Ivo Perilli, Gianni Puccini; story by Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Gianna Puccini
Cinematographer: Otello Martelli
Film Editing: Gabriele Varriale
Costumes: Anna Gobbi
Music: Goffredo Petrassi
With: Vittorio Gassmann (Walter), Doris Dowling (Francesca), Silvana Mangano (Silvana), Raf Vallone (Marco), Checco Rissone (Aristide), Nico Pepe (Beppa), Adriana Sivieri (Celeste), Lia Corelli (Amelia), Maria Grazia Francia (Gabriella), Dedi Ristori (Anna), Anna Maestri (Irene), Mariemma Bardi (Gianna), Maria Capuzzo (Giulia), Isabella Zennaro (Rosa), Carlo Mazzarella (Gianetto), Ermanno Randi, Antonio Nediani (Erminio), Mariano Englen (Cesare)
by David Sterritt