The best Italian neorealism films are expected to make us cry, or at least the ones that are beloved among film fans. Roberto Rosellini and Vittorio de Sica pulled on audiences heartstrings as they reminded us of the difficulty of life in the rubble of World War II. But Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice), directed by Giuseppe De Santis, is something entirely different. It’s a pulp-noir story trapped in Italian Neorealist clothing.
The 1949 film is about two women: the world-weary Francesca (Doris Dowling) and the young Silvana (Silvana Mangano). Francesca’s boyfriend is the small-time thief Walter (Vitorio Gassman). They try to escape the police after pulling off their latest job by hiding among the rice workers heading to the fields. When they get separated, Francesca takes their loot and heads to the fields with the workers, even though she doesn’t have a union contract. Francesca becomes friendly with Silvana.
During the first half of Bitter Rice, there is a sense that this is going in the direction of most Neorealist films. These two women live among fellow realistic characters, suffering in the fields. It sounds like this is going to be a movie about what Italian women are forced to do to make money in the years after World War II. The most exciting thing that happens is a dispute between workers with contracts and those without. Silvana also earns the affections of soldier Marco (Raf Vallone), who is about to be discharged.
But as the rice-picking season nears its end, Bitter Rice changes when Walter arrives. The film becomes something entirely different, as if De Santis got bored and injected some American noir into this. It’s violent, exciting and has you on the edge of year seat. There’s betrayal, romantic rejection and even gun fire in a kitchen.
Bitter Rice‘s most fascinating element is the friendship between the two women and what they want to get out of love. Silvana, the over-sexualized, lover of Americana, falls in love with a scuzzy criminal named Walter. It’s bitter love that tastes terrible, but she doesn’t know it. Francesca, the character played by an American actress, realizes that she should be with a man who has served his country well. For a film that shows the danger of falling in love with a culture that loves materialistic objects like stolen jewels (at least, in De Santis’ view), the film owes so much to American noir.
After years of rumors and the film being available on Hulu, Criterion finally released Bitter Rice earlier this year. At first, the transfer is absolutely astounding, but the film gets softer as it goes on, reaching its softest point at about halfway through the film. It does get better though, although damage frequently shows up.
Supplements for the film are slim, but considering that it is a lower-tier $29.99 release, it’s not too bad. In fact, this has more than usual for Criterion’s cheaper releases. Of course, it’s still disappointing because this is an important Italian film. Surely, there could have been some historian interested in talking about the stars of this film, especially Silvana Mangano. That said, here’s what we get:
- Guiseppe De Santis – This is a 2008 documentary that runs a bit shy of an hour and is more about the overall career of De Santis than just Bitter Rice.
- Carlo Lizzani – Writer Carlo Lizzani made the De Santis film. In 2002, he recorded a very short interview for another DVD release of Bitter Rice, which Criterion included here.
- Essay – Critic Pasquale Iannone wrote the included essay, which is on the back of a fold-out poster featuring an incredible piece of work by Ken Laager. If only Criterion included it as a separate piece. That would be a great poster to hand on a wall.
Bitter Rice is a remarkable and unique film. Some Italian Neorealist films might be important pieces of film history, but they aren’t always fun to watch. Bitter Rice is the opposite of that. De Santis cracked a code to show audiences the lives or rice field workers while also giving audiences an exciting pulpy plot.