Bitter Rice: A Field in Italy

Born in 1917, Giuseppe De Santis belonged to the younger generation of Italian neorealist filmmakers, who injected new vigor into the movement by engaging more fully with the tropes of established genres like the melodrama, the western, and the crime thriller. This approach—while to a degree already evidenced in earlier neorealist film—comes to the fore in such pictures as Alberto Lattuada’s The Bandit (1946) and Pietro Germi’s Lost Youth (1948). But it is perhaps best, and most famously, exemplified by De Santis’s masterpiece Bitter Rice (1949), a story of thievery and treachery set in the rice fields of northwest Italy.

Before he started making his own films, De Santis studied at Rome’s state-owned film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He also had short stories published in respected journals. But it was his time as a critic for the film magazine Cinema that shaped his career, if not his entire outlook on life. The contributors to Cinema—all fervently anti-Fascist—included future filmmakers Gianni Puccini, Carlo Lizzani, Antonio Pietrangeli, Luchino Visconti, and Michelangelo Antonioni. In his articles for the magazine, De Santis revealed an admiration for American culture and elements of Hollywood cinema, but he was also convinced that Italian filmmakers should follow the example of poetic-realist directors such as Jean Renoir, especially in relation to the filmic depiction of landscape, a thesis he laid out in a famous 1941 article, “For an Italian Landscape.” In another piece, “More on Verga and Italian Cinema,” written with Mario Alicata that same year, De Santis echoes the work of the preeminent theorist of neorealism, Cesare Zavattini: “We too are convinced that one day we will make our most beautiful film following the slow and tired steps of a worker returning home. We will narrate the vital poetry of a life that’s new and pure, that carries within it the secret of its aristocratic beauty.” During his time with Cinema, De Santis was waiting for the opportunity to start making his own films and, after several unrealized projects, Visconti provided him with his first important filmmaking experience. He hired De Santis, together with Alicata and Puccini, to write the screenplay for Ossessione (1943), the Milanese aristocrat’s debut feature, which was an Italian reworking of novelist James M. Cain’s 1934 thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice.

While coming from an American source, Ossessione was infused with the sensuous sights and sounds of life in the Po Valley—a prototype, in retrospect, for the kinds of films De Santis would go on to make. And that filmmaking career finally began—after collaborations with such other directors as Roberto Rossellini and Aldo Vergano—with Tragic Hunt (1947). Based on a real incident, Tragic Hunt tells the story of a former partisan, Alberto (Andrea Checchi), who, unable to find work, is reduced to stealing precious funds from a farming cooperative. The film has much to say about the social problems of postwar Italy but does so in the guise of a tense crime thriller. It proved to be a powerful calling card for De Santis, receiving a warm reception at the Venice Film Festival, where it was entered into competition with the likes of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and Orson Welles’s The Stranger.

Making his way back to Rome from a Paris screening of Tragic Hunt, De Santis stopped off at the Milano Centrale train station. As he waited there, he was struck by the sight of train carriages packed with mondine (female rice workers). These were women of all ages and from different parts of Italy who were heading home after several weeks of backbreaking work in the nearby fields. Despite their fatigue, they were boisterous, sang songs, and joked among themselves. De Santis made the decision then and there that his second film would take place in the world of the mondine.

Bitter Rice tells of the petty thief Walter (Vittorio Gassman) and his accomplice, Francesca (Doris Dowling), who are on the run from the police after stealing a necklace from a luxury hotel. They seek refuge among the bustle of departing mondine at the Turin train station but are spotted by the authorities. Walter hands Francesca the necklace before making his escape, and she manages to evade capture by joining the mass of female workers heading for the rice fields. On the train journey, she meets Silvana (Silvana Mangano), a boogie-woogie-loving, gum-chewing mondina whose suspicions are immediately aroused.

It’s clear that with the film’s postcredits train station sequence, De Santis wanted to re-create as faithfully as possible the vision that had greeted him in Milan in 1947. The scene begins with a close-up of a man seemingly talking directly to the camera. He explains the history and characteristics of work in the rice fields, how physically taxing it is, asserting that only women are able to successfully carry it out. The camera slowly pulls away, and we find that the speaker is broadcasting for a local radio station. De Santis pans to the left, revealing a stream of mondine making their way across the tracks. The shot continues, uninterrupted, for almost a full 360 degrees, following the women as they climb onto the thronging platform. Bodies move in every direction; an open-top truck filled with workers makes its way through the crowds. It’s the first of several meticulously choreographed, revelatory tracking shots used throughout the film by De Santis and cinematographer Otello Martelli (who had worked with Rossellini on Paisan a few years earlier and would go on to become a regular collaborator of Federico Fellini’s). Only minutes later, we get another: Walter and Francesca stand in the doorway of a train as it’s about to depart, and the camera moves away from them, to the left, passing carriage windows filled with travelers. In one compartment, an elderly man lathers his beard for a shave; in another, we see a couple bicker. The camera glides over the tracks and settles on Silvana as she dances to music from her portable gramophone. This passage functions as a microcosm of the film’s approach: neorealist tropes—extended takes, acknowledgment of lives outside those of the central characters—combine with the show-stopping, very “Hollywood” introduction of the film’s protagonists.

To this day, Mangano’s performance is one of cinema’s most memorable breakthroughs. Still in her late teens at the time of production, she was by no means the first choice for the role that would turn her into an international star. Producer Dino De Laurentiis (who would later marry her) claimed that it was he who spotted Mangano on an election poster while out walking with De Santis on Rome’s Via Veneto. This was after he had vetoed the suggestion of the recent Miss Italia winner Lucia Bosè, feeling she wouldn’t be believable as a rice worker, that she lacked the physicality and earthiness needed for the role. De Santis maintained that an agent had introduced him to Mangano some time before De Laurentiis pointed her out. Whoever’s idea it ultimately was, her casting was inspired. Along with a stunning natural beauty, her physical stature exudes resilience and vitality. It’s impossible to see any other Italian actress of her generation in the role; she’s utterly convincing as a young woman who can take on punishing work by day and still have the energy and enthusiasm to dance to her beloved boogie-woogie by night. Italo Calvino compared her to Botticelli’s Venus, with an added aura of “sweet pride,” while critics Giovanni Cimmino and Stefano Masi described her photogenicness as being like “a punch in the face,” adding that “she reigns supreme in every shot of the film, with the sleepy indolence of the strong.”

With critics and the public alike bowled over by Mangano, the work of the three other main players in Bitter Rice—Dowling, Gassman, and Raf Vallone—has tended to get short shrift. Cimmino and Masi rather unfairly described Dowling as “a rag doll . . . with an air of dejection” compared to her female costar, but the Detroit-born actress, fresh from eye-catching performances in Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (1945) and George Marshall’s underrated film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946), more than holds her own. Her longing glances at the soldier Marco (Vallone) when the pair first meet are the work of a technically brilliant actress, and overall her performance contrasts very effectively with that of Mangano. Bitter Rice provided Vallone, a former professional soccer player, with his first substantial film role. His character is a disaffected, ruggedly handsome veteran. His shirt unfailingly open, he is sexualized almost as much as Silvana, and he tries to court her with little success. (“I have to want it,” she says. “I’ll let you know when the moment is right.”) Like Vallone, Gassman also had a background in sports (in his case, basketball). He had made his debut in the theater in the early 1940s and, under the guidance of Visconti, developed into one of Italy’s most powerful actors. That being said, his character in Bitter Rice is the least interesting of the four leads. Early on in the film, a single gesture from Walter tells you all you need to know about him: cornered by armed police at the train station, he thinks nothing of using Francesca as a human shield.

Bitter Rice’s foregrounding of the world of work, the struggle to make a living, links it to Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and The Roof (1956), but De Santis’s film stands out for its focus on the work of women. The director emphasizes the playful camaraderie among the mondine, and you feel that he finds this is just as important as the central intrigue between the four protagonists. When we catch small pieces of conversation among the other workers, it’s clear from their many different accents that they come from all over Italy. Toward the end of the picture, a party is thrown for the mondine, and we see them enjoy time out from their hard work. By this point, Walter has arrived at the fields, and after being rejected by Francesca, he starts manipulating Silvana. He tries to persuade her to flood the fields, thereby creating a diversion for him and his accomplices to escape with a truckload of rice. Reluctantly, Silvana agrees. She joins in the festivities (and is even crowned “Miss Mondina 1948”) but, once she realizes what she has done, is overcome with guilt. De Santis uses a striking crane shot for this moment of realization. The camera looks down on Silvana as she makes her way back from the small, decorated boardwalk that is now completely deserted. We close in on her as an anxiety-ridden cue from composer Goffredo Petrassi emerges on the soundtrack. Camera movement, mise-en-scène, music, and performance combine powerfully to evoke Silvana’s intense regret, and the sequence dispels any notion that Mangano’s performance is based solely on heightened sexuality. This moment must have left an impression on De Sica, as he had Mangano take on a similarly challenging sequence in his anthology film The Gold of Naples (1954), where she plays a newly married prostitute who finds out her respectable bourgeois husband has only married her to assuage his guilt.

The film’s final showdown between the couples (Silvana and Walter versus Francesca and Marco) takes place in a small slaughterhouse adjacent to the fields, where Walter ends up fatally shot, with his arm caught on a meat hook, his body dangling like the surrounding carcasses. The symbolism of this sequence is particularly bold; crucially, it is the female characters who take control.

Bitter Rice was a considerable success upon its release, stirring up discussion among critics across the political spectrum. For some on the left, the film’s focus on romantic and sexual intrigue obfuscated, even sullied, its social message, a criticism that the director rejected. De Santis’s engagement with American iconography was also questioned, but he had never made a secret of his appreciation for American culture; indeed, it was something he shared with many artists of his generation, including Fellini. (And despite the criticism leveled at him, De Santis could count on the support of many other progressive observers, including none other than the secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti.)

After Bitter Rice, De Santis made a further nine features, most of which (especially those after 1955) are notoriously difficult to see. In 1952, he turned once again to the subject of women and work for Rome 11:00. The film was based on a piece of reportage by the then twenty-two-year-old journalist, critic, and future Oscar-winning filmmaker Elio Petri on a recent tragedy in which a young woman was killed, and several others injured, when a desperate mass scramble for one meagerly paid job led to the collapse of a staircase. Revisiting and expanding on the themes of De Santis’s first two films, especially Bitter Rice, Rome 11:00 was very much ahead of its time, anticipating by almost a decade the kind of “cine-investigation” that Francesco Rosi made famous in the 1960s and ’70s.

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