BITTER RICE (1948)
Reviewed by Paul Cogley
The opening scene of Bitter Rice (1948) seems like a documentary. A narrator speaks of the plight of migrant women, known as mondine, who arrive yearly in northern Italy’s Po Valley for the 40-day rice harvest season. The camera pans over scores of women packed in rows of Fiat trucks, cheering and waving to onlookers. But we soon see that our narrator is a character within this film, a news reporter telling the story of the day for his radio audience. He will disappear from view as we continue to follow the women to the rice fields where the film’s real story unfolds.
The opening documentary approach becomes the first of several genre twists that director Guiseppi De Santes embeds into this golden age neorealistic film masterpiece. The film is so rich in details that they are difficult to sort out. Even when a scene fails in its intent, it nevertheless manages to succeed in unintentional ways. For example, over-choreographed scenes of the mondine singing in the fields still manage to work as Greek chorus-like interludes pushing forward the sense of fatalism of the main characters.
The story is about two couples whose lives interlock during the rice harvest. Francesca, is with the thief Walter. She sneaks on the train with the mondine and meets Sylvania, who gets her work as a clandestina, an uncontracted worker. Sylvania avidly reads photo-romance magazines and is enthralled that Francesca may be involved in a jewelry heist reported in the daily papers. As things proceed, Walter will jilt Francesca for Sylvania while planning another heist, this time to steal the season’s rice harvest. In the meantime Francesca will gain the affections of Sylvania’s spurned boyfriend Marco, an upstanding career army sergeant. The final confrontation takes place in a grizzly slaughterhouse.
Silvana Mangano plays the role of Sylvania and gives an exceptional performance. She acts sensuous and innocent yet also seasoned, torn between facing her future as either a rice worker or a thief’s accomplice. In the New York Times’ 1949 review, Bowsley Crawford compared the 19-year old actress to Anna Magnani, Ingrid Bergman, and Rita Hayworth. In two scenes she simply dances while crowds of onlookers cheer; like everything else in this film, these scenes fit in perfectly.
De Santes began his film career as a scriptwriter for Vincente Visconti’s Ossesione (1942), the important precurser of the neorealistic film movement. Much like Ossessione, Bitter Rice is a hybrid film, weaving together Hollywood-style suspense and pure melodrama, not to mention cinematically beautiful wetlands scenery of sun reflections on the water.
Reintroducing Hollywood elements into neorealistic filmmaking was De Santes’ contribution to the evolution of the movement. Until De Santes, the overtly theoretically based neorealistic films tended to take their social messages a bit too seriously. De Santes showed a way to stay true to the movement’s mission and principles while more fully entertaining audiences. For example, even as we see women workers donning straw hats to begin a hard day bent over knee-deep in water, the camera turns to show us lush panoramas of gushing water spilling over the dykes
As with any other neorealistic film of the era—including De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, also made in 1948—Bitter Rice refuses to end with a wrapped up resolution. A mark of a true neorealistic film was not to deliver a happy ending but, rather, to emphasize that the struggles of the proletariat always face another day. As the word FIN fills the screen of Bitter Rice, we are left to understand that the mondine will return to the Po Valley again next year to live new stories filled with passion and injustice.