Imagine a naturalistic slice of Italian neorealism fused with pulpy, stylish, black-and-white Sam Fuller melodramas like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, and you have an idea of what to expect from Giuseppe De Santis' striking Bitter Rice. The film technically fits within the confines of the neorealist movement because it was shot on location, focuses on poor, working-class characters and addresses some of the challenging social issues Italy was facing at the time. However, rather than giving this material the usual “realistic” docudrama treatment, Bitter Rice chooses to boost its socially conscious story with stylish direction and bursts of lurid sensationalism.
Our tale is set in Northern Italy at the beginning of the rice-planting season. A pair of small-time thieves named Walter (Vittorio Gassman, War and Peace) and Francesca (Doris Dowling, The Lost Weekend) attempt to escape the authorities by hiding themselves in a crowd of female rice workers preparing to board a train for the rice fields. The two are separated when the authorities spot Walter, but Francesca ends up boarding the train and making friends with a peasant woman named Silvana (Silvana Mangano, Dune). Francesca decides to join Silvana in the rice fields, but unfortunately, she lacks a work permit. As such, she's lumped in with the other “illegal” workers, and is forced to fight with disapproving documented workers and the field bosses to keep her new position.
This is the sort of material that might have easily served as the center of a dry, documentary-style “issue” flick (plenty of those were being made in Italy at the time), but De Santis – collaborating with future superstar producer Dino De Laurentiis – presents this material in boldly cinematic, sensual fashion. Rather than presenting Silvana as a beaten-down peasant woman, the film presents her as a sex symbol: she's introduced performing a seductive dance, and the film never misses an opportunity to emphasize her long, bare legs or her always-tight shirts. It sounds a little ridiculous – imagine Marilyn Monroe as a farm worker - but somehow, Mangano makes it work, bringing an earthy humanity to the performance that makes the character feel real despite the fact that the sweat on her face doesn't seem to match up with her perfect, unsullied hair.
Initially, Silvana was intended to be a supporting character in the film, as the movie would place a heavier emphasis on Francesca's journey (and eventual reunion with Walter, who shows up later to make trouble). However, once Mangano was cast, it became immediately apparent that the filmmakers had a new star on their hands. As production went on, Mangano shifted to the center of the film's orbit, and was placed front and center in all of the film's marketing. “Sexy Italian neorealism” might seem like an oxymoron, but that's precisely what the film aimed for. It worked: Bitter Rice became a huge hit, and even went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Story.
While the other actors may have gotten the short end of the stick (for a hilarious example, just look at the film's theatrical poster below, which places a seductive-looking Mangano in full color and the others as black-and-white shadows in the background), they certainly do solid work. Dowling's performance – dour and serious – makes a particularly nice contrast to the more vivacious work Mangano is doing, and the disconnect between the two acting styles makes Francesca's growing bitterness towards Silvana more persuasive.
This was De Santis' third feature, and part of a long line of movies he made that dramatized the need for various types of social reform. In Bitter Rice, he landed upon the simple but fresh revelation that he could still do this – and perhaps even do it more effectively – by fusing his socially conscious pleas with the sort of irresistibly pulpy material guaranteed to grab the attention of audience members who might not otherwise pay attention to a movie about the struggles of impoverished rice field workers. It isn't always elegant, but it works.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Year: 1949