Bitter Rice Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Beauty of the Downtrodden

1940s Italian film marries social commentary about the lower class with rewarding drama and romance.
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Long before Dino De Laurentiis was a noted Hollywood producer, he produced Italian films such as this 1949 drama. Interestingly, his director on this film, Giuseppe De Santis, also had a deep appreciation of U.S. culture and Hollywood film techniques, although he maintained strong convictions about how his films should stake their own Italian identity both thematically and visually. His subject matter for Bitter Rice fully expresses those ideas as he wrings beautiful scenes out of a story set amongst poor farm workers.

As the film reveals, every year scores of Italian women would leave home to find temporary work on rice farms, where they would live for a full 40 days while the crops grew to fruition. Isolated from their homes, the women were subjected to abuse, loneliness, and poor wages, and yet were also able to forge strong friendships with their compatriots. This isn’t a documentary about those women though, they’re primarily the social commentary backdrop for two unlikely love stories.

At the start, financially desperate newbie Francesca (Hollywood actress Doris Dowling) finds herself on a train to a rice field after a botched getaway with her lowlife thief boyfriend Walter (Vittorio Gassman). She doesn’t have a job contract, and isn’t sure she’ll be accepted for work, but with no better options she takes a risk. Upon arrival at the field, she lands with other non-contract workers and starts working with no guarantee of pay, hoping that the bosses will see that the non-contract workers are better than the rest.

Meanwhile, a lovely contract worker named Silvana (Silvana Mangano) is nearing the end of her on again/off again romance with a soldier named Marco (Raf Vallone) stationed at the field. He’s about to leave the army, the field, and her, but not before he notices the new arrival and takes a bit of a fancy to her. When thieving Walter stumbles on the scene and comes up with a new get-rich-quick plan to steal all of the rice, the four players are set into action with and against each other, testing previous alliances while forging new ones.

The plot succeeds in keeping viewers guessing about its outcome, and moves at a decent pace with no dull moments. It’s an interesting mix of socially conscious studies of the poor working class and the rice-farm economy with more conventional drama and romance, making for a well-rounded and rewarding film. De Santis films his field scenes with a loving touch, revealing the beauty in the common tasks and interactions of the workers without compromising the drama. He also gets superb performances from his cast, most notably the mesmerizing Mangano, and to a lesser extent, the completely amateur and hence naturalistic Vallone.

The film on Blu-ray is presented in a new hi-def restoration with monaural soundtrack, although the image restoration falls fairly low on the quality spectrum as scratches and dirt are still prevalent. The key bonus feature is a nearly hour-long documentary about De Santis, which was directed by his Bitter Rice screenwriter Carlo Lizzani in 2008. Additionally, the disc includes a brief 2002 interview with the director. The features aren’t particularly illuminating, but do offer some further background about De Santis and his mindset at the time of the film’s production.

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