Thursday, June 1, 2017
Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis, 1949)
Summer With Monika (1953) was snapped up by one who cut it by a third, while carefully retaining Harriet Andersson's nude scene, and marketed it as Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl. For a long time, what Americans associated with the phrase "French film" was not Renoir or Bresson, or even Godard or Truffaut, but Brigitte Bardot. And for many Americans, their introduction to Italian neorealism was not the documentary-like work of Roberto Rossellini in Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) or of Vittorio De Sica in Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), but Giuseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice, with its posters and lobby cards emphasizing the voluptuous Silvana Mangano. The story has it that Bitter Rice began with a documentary inspiration: De Santis was riding on a train and noticed that it was full of working-class and peasant women. He learned that they were returning from their annual work in the rice fields of the Po Valley, where women were the primary workers because their smaller hands made them more efficient at planting and harvesting. De Santis was a member of the Italian Communist Party, and the more he investigated, the more the exploitation of the rice workers seemed to him the perfect subject for a film of social commentary. His first film, Tragic Hunt (1947), about the struggles of peasants to form a cooperative, had been well received, and he got the backing for Bitter Rice from Dino Di Laurentiis's new production company. Together with Carlo Lizzani and Gianni Puccini, he put together a story and began casting, signing up handsome newcomers Vittorio Gassman and Raf Vallone for the key male roles and the young American actress Doris Dowling, who had just made an impressive appearance as a call girl in Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (1945), for the female lead. And then he discovered 19-year-old Silvana Mangano and the fine line between serious social-problem film and exploitation film was crossed. Mangano's innate sensuality threw the story off track, to the point that even today all anyone remembers about Bitter Rice is her vivid presence in it. Poor Doris Dowling becomes a secondary player, and the much worked-over screenplay shows the sometimes awkward efforts to integrate Mangano's character into the original plot, in which Dowling and Gassman play thieves on the run, with Dowling's Francesca hiding out among the rice-workers, while Gassman's Walter cooks up a scheme to hijack the entire rice crop. There is much ado about a stolen necklace that turns out to be fake, and a little bit of social commentary about the conflict between the unionized workers and the freelance "illegals." Traces of the original documentary inspiration remain in the movie, in between scenes of Mangano dancing and seducing Gassman and Vallone, and De Santis is a keenly observant director with a gift for staging impressive shots, deftly aided by cinematographer Otello Martelli. But the failure to assemble a coherent story undermines the whole project, so, naturally, De Santis and Lizzani were nominated for the best motion picture story Oscar.