Bitter Rice (1949)

Dir. Giuseppe De Santis. Starring Silvana Mangano, Doris Dowling, Vittorio Gassman

The radio announcer in the beginning of the film tells us why the rice fields of northern Italy are manned entirely by women; they have faster, smaller hands. And so we are thrust into a world full of women, where men are interlopers, flinging chaos into an otherwise well-ordered segment of society. The men are two-bit gangsters like Walter (Gassman), who think of themselves as suave tricksters when in fact their plans are moth-eaten and the execution even rattier; the men are fellows who take a cut of the women’s pay in exchange for getting them into the fields without a union contract; the men are tired soldiers like Marco (Raf Vallone) who have no viable skill in the new Italy without world war. Most of the men lack verve – Walter, despite being a blowhard, at least lounges on mountains of rice with some savoir faire – and temerity. These qualities are assigned to the women of Bitter Rice, who do a better job with them anyway.

It’s very easy for women to have conversations about their work, about their hygiene, about the weather without ever having to reference a man. Most of the conflict in the early going has to do with organized labor. Silvana (Mangano), like most of the women, has a union contract to work in the rice fields. Despite the fact that she helped Francesca (Dowling) pick up a job, she turns on her when it becomes apparent that Francesca is somehow involved in the criminal underworld. Singing – for the rules are strict and talking is forbidden – about outdoing the scabs who have come to take their jobs, she turns special scrutiny on Francesca and her crew. Francesca sings back. (What I personally enjoy is that the rest of the women echo the soloist no matter how personal the lyrics are.) Someone else sings about how the foreman is a jerk. The work day ends in a brawl in the paddies, but what’s clear is that if there’s fighting, it’s to be fighting led and accomplished by women. It doesn’t take long to fulfill that promise; the union women ultimately threaten to walk off the job if the non-union women are sent away, and so it is that everyone sticks around to continue working.

Silvana, bustier and thicker than the largely slim-hipped population of ricefield workers, stands out from the rest of them. (The shots of her on a horse-drawn raft while she shout-sings and throws plants to her union friends, compared to Doris Dowling squatting, bare-legged, in the water, are an exercise in opposites.) Although she is not terribly interesting as a character – her actions are scattered and random – she takes up more of our attention by the mere fact of her physical presence, either lounging or planting or dancing or slouching; she does plenty of all of those. If one decided to remake Bitter Rice seventy years on, Silvana would be addicted to Snapchat filters and Adele. She and Walter, who she dances with twice and later falls for, are exhilarated by anything big. The necklace that Walter stole, supposedly priceless in the first half of the movie and revealed, a little weakly, as a fake in the second, splashily goes around her neck as she boogie-woogies for a crowd after hours during the middle of planting season. Walter has a scheme with three lame cronies to steal all of the rice in the warehouses, the kind of thing that he probably saw Jimmy Cagney cook up and, best of all, requires him to do virtually no work. Walter’s bravado is what attracts Silvana to him. Marco, who is just as handsome as Walter (and puts the hair suit in hirsute), is every bit the dreamer that Walter is. Marco’s dreams, though, end with him starting over in Argentina, probably learning a trade. (It is pleasantly unsurprising that Marco and Francesca, Walter’s ex-moll, are thrown together. Both have seen much more of the world than their opposite numbers, and both have a better sense of what’s valuable.) Silvana is a small town girl whose biggest kicks have come at a train station, where she got some people to watch her dance badly, and in some northern Italian rice paddy, likewise. If Marco were going to New York, perhaps she might have fallen for him; there’s something about Walter that fits her American sensibilities, the capitalist glitz that often seduces teenagers who don’t know any better. De Santis doesn’t lob critiques at economic or government systems with the same zest as other neorealists, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t toss any at all. In Silvana we find an innocent, high-spirited Italian girl who is caught up in the costume jewelry that is the American Way.

Aside from social critique, Bitter Rice contains some really marvelous camerawork and cinematography. The train station where the rice planters are boarding is evinced with a dizzying tracking shot, for instance, and the rice fields themselves have a certain beauty to them. The rush of the water entering the paddies is shown; from high above, we can see how the water is framed by little hills of dry land every now and then. There’s an attractive geometry to the work, which is no small feat: the work itself is shown to be as tough as it gets in terms of physical labor, unenviable for anyone except the women who need the money and the big bag of rice they come home with. I found myself intrigued by the way that De Santis films rain. In one scene, where all of the women have decided to work in the driving rain to ensure they’ll get more rice in their bags, one girl goes out even though her friend warns her not to. She has a miscarriage in the rice fields, and the depiction of the scene made me cringe more than a little. While she screams, the other women sing as is the rule of the paddies, and surround her. The rain that falls on them is not realistic; it looks like there’s a platform above the camera that they poured water over. What happens instead of verisimilitude is an ethereal view of the scene. In the seventy-years-on version, they’ll film this scene in the real rain, but they will lose the strange terror of it. It will be much too easy to see the girl actor screaming with the fake blood around her; in this sequence, the girl actor screams, hidden from our view as water deluges in front of the lens. It makes the end of the scene a relief, a way to pull away from what looks genuinely horrifying.

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