When all Criterion films on HULU became free for streaming over President’s Day Weekend last month, I happened to find out if only a bit too late to take full advantage of it. I didn’t learn until Saturday evening, so it became a mad scramble to determine which films I hadn’t seen, and which of those were also NOT available via DVD. So once doing that, I settled on a few films, some of which turned out to be neorealist films from Italy, a movement in film that I really like. One such film I saw, was Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro), by Giuseppe De Santis. Not only was I completely surprised by the film, but I was wholly entertained by its near-lurid amounts of exploitation and camp, film noir, and of course that humanist quality found so often in neorealism. It is the odd blending of these elements that makes the film stand out and is really not like anything I’ve ever seen before.
Bitter Rice sets up a scenario whereby a thief named Francesca (Doris Dowling) ends up running from the law and boarding a train full of women who are being shipped up to the Po Valley in Italy to plant and harvest rice. She meets Silvana (a hyper sexed-up Silvana Mangano), a rice worker who takes Francesca under her wing. When Francesca learns she has to have a work permit to be able to work the rice fields, she is initially discouraged, but begins to work anyway, and along with several other women, begins to work harder than all the “legal” workers. Now this social aspect of the film, considering legal versus illegal workers and the moral implications of the situation would be a more typical scenario for a neorealist film. Yet it’s such a small component of the film in fact, as it quickly devolves into something else entirely.
About 1/3 of the way through the film, things seem to change and Bitter Rice veers away from a more conservative Italian approach to a more lurid Westernized romp. In fact, a surprising amount of shenanigans take place, from “cat-fights” (including some mud wrestling between women in the rice paddies), to love triangles, to late night talks (in lingerie of course) in the women’s barracks, to an absurdly fun fatal shootout (where the women do the shooting) which takes place in a meat processing facility, complete with cow carcasses hanging from meat hooks. It’s a wild movie and great fun and in fact contains a shifting point of view and conflicting sense of purpose not easily found in this era of Italian filmmaking. I suppose the closest thing to this might be found in the wild melodramas of Matarazzo of this era, but his films were more catholic-leaning in nature, portraying penitential characters forced to endure through trying life situations. De Santis is less interested in messages here and the film works on a more instinctual nature.
Apparently this film did really well internationally, and turned Silvana Mangano into an overnight sensation (how about all that armpit hair?). It’s not hard to see why American audiences would have found lots of things to appreciate here though, not the least would be the sex and violence. It’s an unsubtle film, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously and that’s why it works so well today. It’s hard to really know whether to consider this film a true masterpiece or more of a guilty pleasure. I actually think it’s both and really deserves to get attention, as it seems to draw future parallels in the films of Samuel Fuller and even Quentin Tarantino. But whereas Tarantino seems sometimes to be embarrassingly aware of his own provocation, Bitter Rice maintains an earnest dose of entertaining fun, without pretense. For aficionados of noir, camp, neorealist or exploitation films, Bitter Rice is a goldmine.