Criterion Release Date: January 12, 2016 (LINK)
Before the monthly release announcement of Criterion, the name of the Italian director Giuseppe De Santis is unheard of in my limited knowledge. Nope, I haven’t heard of the film Bitter Rice neither. Besides Bitter Rice, there has been a small trend for Criterion to release some obscure Italain films recently, for instance A Special Day (1977) by Ettore Scola is released last October (in this case, at least I have watched Ettore Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974), another great film that deserves Criterion attention), not to mention the upcoming release of I Knew Her Well (1965) by Antonio Pietrangeli, one that I know nothing about.
Perhaps this is largely my problem of ignorance, because from what I read after watching Bitter Rice, it is a much better known film internationally than I realised. It was nominated for the best screenplay in 1951 Oscar, selected in 1949 Cannes Film Festival. It bought its female star Silvana Mangano to the stardom, as you can see, her body of physicality is frequently featured and dominated in every promotion materials, say the folded poster (with an essay printed on the other side) included in the Criterion release shows Silvana Meliga (played by Silvana Mangano) resting on bed beside her gramophone, leg-crossed.
Sexuality plays an important part in Bitter Rice, but not without the foregrounding of the agricultural working class life in the mix of Hollywood-like crime thriller. After the opening credits with a group of rice-planting workers at field, a man is placed in the foreground, who soon to be revealed as a reporter for radio broadcast, explaining the situation of rice planting and the female-dominated working condition. Then the camera starts panning and forms a continuous, almost-360-degree shot, displaying a train station cramped with workers jumping on trains, or a truck loaded of workers arriving. The shot ends with the appearance of Walter Granata (Vittorio Gassman), a man who is fleeing from the police after he and his accomplice-and-lover Francesca (Doris Dowling) stole a necklace from a hotel.
The panning shot would nearly repeat itself just a few minutes later, when Walter and Francesca stare out from a train in hiding, scan through a bunch of peasants and workers, and lastly fixate on Silvana dancing among her fellow workers with the music from her gramophone. Multiple times, the camera, in the hand of meticulous cinematography by Otello Martelli, ascend vertically to reveal the rice field filled with workers. A practice in neorealism that bring the attention of audience to the main protagonists (as well as antagonists) while keeping the larger backdrop of social and economic condition in focus.
A Marxist view of workers rights is gently touched when Francesca, being separated from Walter, need to fight for work in the rice field as a non-contract labourer. Initially, Francesca’s idea of working twice as fast as the contract labourers sparks argument between the two groups. As no talking is allowed in the rice-field, the argument is transformed into songs, which is provoked further by Silvana into a fight. Sergeant Marco Galli (Raf Vallone), who with his fellow soldiers have the barricades leased to them until the rice-workers arrives, appears on time to save the day. With an over-simplified idealistic solution, the workers unified and ask the boss to hire them all, and all is done offscreen. This rightly reminded me of a more heavy-handed Italian film The Organizer (1963) by Mario Monicelli, where union and labour activities play a much significant role in the main plot.
Director Giuseppe De Santis generated the idea of a rice-worker film after spotting them in the train station, the final product is a fully realized contemplation on various working class lives. A mother who have to bring her baby along to work, a woman whose sickness may hinder her job and further deteriorate her health. Each background character has her own story that, without the need of detailed illustration, is palpable. It is no wonder Francesca enjoys the companionship and reject Walter when he reappears. In the end, it’s Silvana who trades place with Francesca, falls in love with the sweet-talking Walter that she even agree to sabotage the rice field, in order to diverge attention for Walter and his accomplices to steal the rice.
The last act of the film, especially the showdown between the four protagonists in the slaughterhouse, is much more intense and emotionally profound than I expected. Once again, the strong sense of presence of the two female leads occupy the foremost battleground instead of the males. Here, the necklace becomes the symbol of betrayal and deception that are not labelled with any classes. Human fault is universal. Together with the act of hopelessness from Silvana, which Michelangelo Antonioni would use a similar ending in Il grido (1957), differentiate Bitter Rice from its fellow films in the realm of neorealism.
Vittorio Gassman played the sly, sweet-talking Walter as a man without remorse, he would later star as Bruno in Il sorpasso (1962) with a more persuasive and dimensional performance. Raf Vallone, whose masculinity resembled Burt Lancaster, played a flawed straight soldier that represents the opposite of the criminal Walter. American actress Doris Dowling has a very controlled, introspective performance. As Francesca, by and large, is the entry point of the audience into the film. Still, Silvana Mangano reigns over every single frame of the film she appears, she is more than meet the eye or merely a sexual symbol. Her indulgence is apparent once her character steps (or more precisely, dances) into the screen, whereas her guilty conscience at the end of film is heartbreaking to watch.