Bitter Rice
d. Giuseppe De Santis (1949)
The Criterion Collection Spine: #792
Blu-ray Release Date: January 12, 2016

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

Bitter Rice opens with a narration about the Italian rice-growing region, honing in on the workers — mostly female — who come every year to tend the rice paddies. If it doesn’t exactly match Italian neo-realism, its quasi-documentary mode certainly puts us in that mood. This film, it suggests, is going to go on site to show us the struggles of this particular kind of work. But then we get a slight shift: the narrator, it turns out, is not some omniscient voice speaking to us as viewers; rather, he is a radio announcer, speaking to whoever was listening on the other end. Quickly, the film speeds up to a chase and an escape. Bitter Rice has become well known for its sly use of multiple modes to tell its story that is, suitably (and surely not without difficulty), a nice mesh of issues, sexuality, and melodrama.

Bitter Rice

I had never seen Bitter Rice before watching the Criterion edition that is hitting shelves today, but I was looking forward to it on the strength of one man: Vittorio Gassman. A few years ago I saw him in a brilliant 1960s Italian film called Il Sorpasso (which I had the opportunity to talk about here), and I was drawn in by his tremendous talent. In Il Sorpasso Gassman played the charming, carefree, and dangerous man who gives in to all temptations while tempting others all the while, though he is not a villain. In Bitter Rice, a decade earlier in his career, Gassman plays a more conventional criminal, but his charm is still the main reason he gets anywhere. And I was right to look forward to seeing him in this — he’s fantastic. Still, Gassman is not the most compelling actor in the film. As great as he is, as necessary as he and his charisma are, for me he comes in a distant third.

First, we have Doris Dowling’s Francesca. Francesca has been strung along by Walter, but after he has convinced her to steal an expensive (looking) necklace and he seems more interested in making his own escape, she is starting to become disillusioned.

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Doris Dowling as Francesca and Vittorio Gassman as Walter

Next we have the young Sylvana Mangano playing Silvana. We first meet her when Walter and Francesca are running from the authorities and try to fit in with the crowd of workers heading for the rice paddies. Silvana is listening to some music, and Walter joins her in a dance. Though the police are right on their tail and are willing to fire a gun at them despite the crowd, Walter cannot resist. If Walter thinks this hat is going to help him blend in, he’s got a surprise coming:

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Vittorio Gassman’s Walter dancing with Silvana Mangano as Silvana

Walter and Francesca are separated — after Walter uses her as a human shield — and they go their separate ways. The film again morphs, surprisingly without jolting the viewer, into a portrayal of the women working in the rice, giving particular attention to the social rules and restrictions.

Silvana and Francesca come together for a brief interlude when Silvana helps Francesca begin working in the rice rather than just roam around hiding amongst the other workers. That said, the bosses won’t officially hire Francesca — indeed, she and others who’ve come hoping for work are known as “illegals” among the legitimately hired workers — and that begins to strain Francesca’s position within the group and her friendship with Francesca.

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Bitter Rice, then, presents the politics that govern this relatively small group of people, politics brought on them from the outside where the bosses sit, aware of the women’s needs, exploiting them left and right. These men don’t hire these women for their dainty hands, as the narrator at the beginning suggests.

This larger picture, though, is always overshadowed (and I don’t mean that negatively) by the smaller story between Francesca and Silvana. And their situation gets much worse when Walter shows up with plans to steal the rice harvest, shifting the film back to its crime/heist mode. His arrival again pits Silvana, who hasn’t forgotten when Walter danced with her, against Francesca . . . who also hasn’t forgotten that dance.

So we’ve got the documentary, issue-driven mode alongside the crime and melodrama modes. But we also have some nice musical portions, again nestled naturally in the larger story, as well as some comedy and close-ups of some genuine bonding. We shouldn’t be surprised when the film turns to tragedy to bring all of these elements together.

Bitter Rice probably won’t be a highlight of the year for me, as Il Sorpasso was a few years ago, but I still found it engaging and remarkably well crafted, despite all of the shifts and transitions — indeed, because of them. It is definitely a film I’ll return to soon.

The Criterion Edition:

There was a time a few years ago when Criterion released bare-bones Blu-rays at a $29.95 price point. Those disappeared for a couple of years, but last month returned with Jellyfish Eyes and now Bitter Rice. The good news here is that, while not overloaded with supplements, The Criterion Collection’s release of Bitter Rice is not bare bones.

  • First, we get a 52:33-minute documentary on director Giuseppe De Santis, made in 2008 by Carlo Lizzani, the primary (of several!) screenwriters for Bitter Rice.
  • Next (and lastly, other than the trailer) we get a 6:38-minute interview with Carlo Lizzani himself, done in 2002.
  • The disc comes with a poster fold-out insert featuring an essay by critic Pasquale Iannone.
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