Home Video Hovel: Bitter Rice, by David Bax
Guiseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice is, according to the criteria of the movement, an Italian neo-realist film. Its concern with contemporary social issues, on-location shooting and mix of professional and non-professional actors are all checkmarks of the genre. But the moniker fits a bit awkwardly in this case, as the film also works as a sexy crime thriller. However you want to describe it, though, it’s a winner that is both a galvanizing docudrama and a terrific yarn.
As the film starts, Francesca (Doris Dowling) is on the run with her charismatic lowlife of a fiancé, Walter (Vittorio Gassman). The two have just pulled off a jewel heist and the cops are in pursuit. Walter leaves the booty with Francesca at the train station, where they’ll split up until the heat dies down. She will lie low by finding work in northern Italy’s rice fields, a major source of seasonal employment for many of the country’s less affluent women. There, Francesca makes a new friend in Silvana (Silvana Mangano), who soon becomes a rival, first when she discovers the jewels and later when Walter returns to find that Francesca has outgrown his petty allures and that Silvana is far more receptive.
De Santis depicts the women in the fields with sympathy, almost never even bothering to show us their bosses. The camp where they are lodged is a vivacious place, full of laughter and dancing. Among many other things, Bitter Rice is a fleshed out depiction of female camaraderie; these women draw strength from one another, committing to harvest as much rice as they can (resulting in a larger take-home at the end of the season) and even working through a days-long rainstorm. De Santis lingers on scenes of them at work, gravitating toward depictions of physical process which are inherently cinematic. From the scheduled and controlled flooding of the fields to the methodical movement down the rows of these hunched-over ladies, the film’s neo-realist muscles get a workout in these captivating and sometimes wordless sections.
At the same time, De Santis shows no hesitation to lay on visual flourishes, such as the sweeping crane and/or dolly shots that give us an overview of the multifaceted workforce on the job. Early on, large, floppy hats are distributed to all the woman by manner of being tossed one by one off a truck into the crowd. And so we end up with a scene detailing a discussion about contracted versus non-contracted workers with the backdrop of a cascade of soaring sun hats. It’s surreal and beautiful. Most of De Santis other visual touches aren’t quite so ethereal, though. More often than not, he is concerned with the visceral and the sensuous. When Silvana dances, as she does often, the film itself seems as if it must be warm to the touch. And when Walter engages in fisticuffs with an Army sergeant (Raf Vallone), the fight is staged and shot like Bob Fosse choreographed it. Bitter Rice is a compassionate look at a particular subset of Italy’s working class that is also a film pulsing with life and movement.
The transfer is up to Criterion’s standards. Inconsistencies in sharpness and the tone of the grays is likely attributable to the print that was scanned and not to problems with the scanning or transfer itself.
Special features include a documentary about De Santis, an interview with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani and an essay by Pasquale Iannone.