Crooked agricultural practice begets worker malice in Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice, a late-’40s bit of pulpy neorealism that challenges easy divisions between genre and art-house filmmaking. De Santis’s script, co-written by Carlo Lizzani and Gianni Puccini, pulsates with such location-specific detail regarding Northern Italy’s Po Valley, where hundreds of women gather each season to harvest rice, that one might understandably assume the film has been adapted from a dense, modernist novel.
In fact, the idea and specifics are De Santis’s own, a concept he cultivated while personally witnessing dozens of mondine (female rice workers) boarding a train one morning. The film’s derivation speaks to De Santis’s perceptive regard for the lives of women, particularly in his delicate construction of the film’s two leads: Francesca (Doris Dowling), a thief who’s innocent to the harsh realities of the cropping racket, and Silvana (Silvana Mangano), a hardened harvester who’s innocent to the thicker-than-thieves conceit of her newfound friends.
De Santis opens with a ground-up tracking shot which starts at a worker’s feet, in close-up, before ascending to the skies for the wider angle, revealing hundreds of anonymous croppers hard at work. The mise-en-scène unmistakably presents the scenario as a prison yard, where a few wardens stand guard over their government-disapproved prey. Soon after, a man explains, also in close-up, why “only women can do it,” as if speaking to a group of local workers.
Before his speech ends, the camera tracks out to reveal he’s been speaking into a microphone for a radio station, with passersby hardly stopping to notice his announcement. Through a staggering instance of self-awareness, De Santis uses the scene to acknowledge his film as the functional equivalent of the man’s broadcast; rather than merely an oral address to a nearby audience, the radio announcement (and film) is disseminated to citizens that are dependent on mediated depictions for constructing their political convictions.
Nevertheless, De Santis simultaneously displays trepidation that the resultant effect should be a straightforward evocation of the “real,” for Bitter Rice is even more imbued with a noirish, melodramatic tenor than any of the films made by De Santis’s neorealist brethren. The very inciting incident, of a fugitive couple melding in with local workers in order to evade capture by police, could be lifted from any transnational pulp novel of the period.
Likewise, the narrative’s driving force—a plan to flood and rob the rice crop—deftly functions as a peculiar heist premise. Moreover, as Silvana falls in with Walter (Vittorio Gassman), Francesca’s thieving lover, and Francesca draws the eyes of Marco (Raf Vallone), a local soldier, allegiances shift and shots are fired, all of which culminates in an ending that could have satisfied Hollywood’s Production Code.
Perhaps De Santis opted for a marketable, genre-tinged logline so that the resultant social commentary, particularly the statement that degraded female employees were even more common than males, could wiggle its way through the proceedings without feeling like a stilted sermon regarding worker’s rights. Conversely, Bitter Rice may rigorously structure several sequences with graceful tracking shots by cinematographer Otello Martelli, but the film is no mere stylistic curio or calling card, a result as equally due to the indelible performances of Mangano and Dowling, especially when in-frame together, as De Santis’s perceptions on persistent inequality.
Marx once said that “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” a perception that resounds through De Santis’s depiction of rice fields where blood has been shed before and, whether from corrosion internal or external to the human psyche, will be shed again.
By the Criterion Collection’s standards, this Blu-ray for Bitter Rice is slightly over par, primarily due to a high-definition transfer that looks and sounds just fine, but lacks the "oomph" seen and heard from any number of the company’s show-stopping releases from the past few years. While grain and depth of field are often sharp, the color timing and saturation often waver, lacking the consistency that a finer, more attuned 2K or 4K restoration would have undoubtedly found. Moreover, there are noticeable marks and scratches within the frame throughout. The monaural track is serviceable, if unremarkable, in its presentation of both score and dialogue.
Any connoisseur of Criterion releases has cause to be both enthused and dismayed by this release, which shows the company offering a title at a lower SRP ($29.99) to reflect the lack of extras. Enthused because it might mean more monthly releases, but dismayed because it could mean several titles will be dumped without a full-steam-ahead presentation or supplementation. There are only two supplements to speak of here, a 2008 documentary by screenwriter Carlo Lizzani and an interview with Lizzani from 2002, both of which feel tacked on as cursory additions to avoid a barebones release. Not that they aren’t informative; the interview, especially, helps flesh out De Santis’s directorial mindset at the time of production. But the lack of a contemporary interview or commentary from either a crew member or historian stings, especially considering that so little still exists in English-language scholarship on both De Santis and this particular time period in Italian cinema if the director’s last name isn’t Rossellini. The included essay by critic Pasquale Iannone is nice and has keen insights into both the film and its production, but a half-hour interview, with some sequence analysis and further contextualization, would have been preferable.
A scorching, genre-based neorealist work, Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice deserves better than Criterion’s ho-hum Blu-ray treatment.