Bitter Rice/Riso amaro, on which director Giuseppe De Santis also collaborated with Carlo Lizzani on original story and Academy Award-nominated script, is among five restored full features and a documentary which screen alongside the world première of Lizzani’s 2007 biographical Giuseppe De Santis at the Museum of Modern Art. A reaction against Fascism’s prescribed artificiality, the Italian Neorealism advocated by the director in Cinema magazine and second feature A Tragic Hunt/Caccia tragica, broadly stressed social themes from the left and authenticity with location shooting. Think Ossessione (he collaborated on Visconti’s script), Open City, The Bicycle Thief, La Strada.
But, only slimly about poverty and class struggle in the Po River valley, the 1949 Bitter Rice was the beginning of the end for the brief movement.
Made by the director who lauded Visconti’s disdain of commercialism, the film’s success at home and abroad, notably the U.S. and U.K., sent compatriots scurrying to recapture their world market of the 1910s and early ‘20s. The melodrama and often-scorned but well-made noir female shoot-out amidst dripping carcasses, may have contributed to box office, but what got people queuing up was minor Sicilian-English actress Silvana Mangano (as Silvana). Shortly to be married to the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, but eclipsed by Gina and Sophia, the full-bodied and muscular big-thighed eighteen-year-old waded in rice paddies in black half-stockings and ur-hot pants, a poster to hang beside Jane Russell in the hay, Marilyn over a subway grating, Raquel as cavewoman and Bo emerging from the water.
A convenient Radio Turin broadcaster supplies background on annual rice harvesting driven by social exigencies, as hundreds of lower-class women crowd onto special transport trains to barracks the army is to vacate to house them during the forty-day crop-gathering. On the platform, too, are small-potatoes crook and woman-user Walter (Vittorio Gassman) and his aware but inamorata current girl. She, Francesca, is played by dark-haired American Doris Dowling, deserving of a better fate than second fiddle in memory and film, but rival Mangano seduced even staid Bosley Crowther as a younger Magnani, fleshier Hayworth, Mediterranean Bergman.
For her man, Francesca has stolen a necklace, and he shoots a pursuing policeman and flees, promising to return at some point. Prior to boarding, Silvana dances provocatively to her gramophone’s boogie-woogie and is joined by Walter before he runs. In a reversal of the common blonde-brunette contrast, the lighter-haired Silvana is the sensual one and is randomly antagonistic and helpful to darker Francesca, lying in one such mood swing to get permission for the other to continue the journey.
At the barrack-dormitories, they meet and flirt with veteran Sergeant Marco (Raf Vallone), who recognizes Francesca’s goodness but is physically attracted to the other. In this triangle which grows more complex when Walter arrives to live hidden above a grain warehouse, Francesca is faithful to her scoundrel but drawn towards the soldier, while free-spirit Silvana is happy to string him along but falls herself for the slick-talking hoodlum.
All the women favor short shorts in the field, slips while bonding at off-time, and thin cotton dresses for dancing or flirting, but this fleshly sensuality is tame seventy years later. As well, social issues fall into background, concerns such as scab workers and venal overseers, poverty and unpaid layoffs when rains come, intolerable conditions that cause pregnant Gabriella (Maria Grazia Francia) to miscarry. Once-effective shots of the female workers (many actual migrant laborers) singing in rows or bending in calf-high water, are over-choreographed to today’s eye.
Taking over the forefront are the four principals. Manipulating his two women, Walter schemes to make off with the harvest, and, first thinking of “discharging myself” from the service to seek a future in the Americas, Marco is sucked in while learning the value of the women. Not a thriller or mystery, and in fact a moral tale on the wages of lust and greed, Bitter Rice features moments of bold impressionistic chiaroscuro like the low-angle of the bad guy enlisting three even pettier thieves crouching on piled attic grain. Mangano is at best strained when emoting thought or doubt, but her presence is strong and her fate moving. Good Francesca finds Mr. Right, and if that is the stuff of romance and not pseudo-social critique -- “socio-erotic drama,” in a later verdict -- after all these years the film holds up enough. And, importantly, it initiated a change in direction for one of the big national players in world cinema.
(Released by Universal Music; not rated by MPAA.)