Written by Michael Clawson
Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice is two great movies woven together for the price of one. The first is a richly detailed neorealist account of seasonal rice-field workers in Northern Italy, and the second, a sensual crime melodrama involving stolen jewelry, lover-swapping, and eventually violent death. Walter and Francesca (Vittorio Gassman and Doris Dowling) are lovers on the run when we meet them in a crowded train yard, where throngs of working-class young women are readying to depart for an annual stint of harvesting rice in the Italian countryside. Having just stolen an expensive necklace from a hotel, Walter and Francesca realize that the police are closing in them, and thus decide to part ways and blend in with the surrounding laborers to avoid capture. While Walter leaves for elsewhere, Francesca joins the masses of women in boarding a train and becomes acquainted with the lusty and beautiful Silvana (Silvana Mangano), an experienced rice worker (and sultry dancer) who quickly picks up on the fact that her fellow passenger is carrying stolen valuables.
Thrillingly pulpy drama centers on the possession of the necklace after the two women arrive at a farm, but Bitter Rice’s excellence lies in De Santis’ situation of his steamy material and noirish genre machinations against an authentic backdrop. He’s no more interested in the passionate entanglements that come about than he is in the back-breaking labor that the women carry out in the fields, where they’re up to their knees in water and baking under a hot sun. Walter re-entering the picture and planning a heist is no less compelling than the conflict portrayed between women with union contracts and the “illegals,” who instead of arguing with each other, keep with the tradition of not talking as they harvest and express their gripes with each other through song. If there’s any issue worth calling out, it’s Gassman’s performance as Walter, who’s less threatening than he should be. Hardly worth getting caught up on though given the tremendous vivacity of the performances by Dowling and Mangano, whose talents match their stunning beauty.
Bitter Rice Trailer
Bitter Rice is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel and to purchase and rent on most major VOD Platforms.