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Bitter Rice

Posted by martinteller on October 2, 2014

Walter (Vittorio Gassman) and Francesca (Doris Dowling) are thieves on the run.  The police are hot on their heels after they stole a necklace worth millions.  In a chase at a railroad yard amid throngs of women heading to the rice paddies to work, Walter puts Francesca on one of the trains with promises to meet up with her later.  Francesca befriends the alluring Silvana (Silvana Mangano), who attracts the attention of Marco (Raf Vallone), one of the soldiers vacating the barracks the women will stay in.  But Silvana’s focus is on the suspicious Francesca… and her beau, Walter.

Although there is some addressing of social issues in the study of the rice workers, this is more a noir melodrama than an example of Italian neorealism.  These characters are pure noir, with a bad girl who’s not so bad and a good girl who’s not so good, a brutal, conniving criminal and a stoic, moral hero.  Dowling had previously appeared in The Lost Weekend and The Blue Dahlia… Gassman would go on to star in The Glass Wall.  There’s a tense, bloody climax in  a slaughterhouse.

As for the melodrama, emotions are amped up to extreme levels.  The film can be rather overwrought, which is its biggest downfall.  Not that high drama is inherently bad, but when it gets laughable there’s a problem.  It also occasionally gets tiresome and makes certain scenes feel drawn out, or at least tiresome watching people get so worked up.  Still, the story — despite a whopping eight writers credited — manages to be satisfying.  There’s a lot of shifting morality going on (that noir touch again) and the stuff about the rice harvesting is interesting, if not all that rich with detail.

The cinematography by Otello Martelli (who worked on some of Fellini’s most stunning pictures, like La Dolce Vita and Nights of Cabiria, among others) is the movie’s strongest asset.  Images are stark and striking, with elegant camera movement in glorious tracking shots and crane shots.  There are also a number of leering shots of cleavage and legs, especially those of Mangano, 19 years old and a former “Miss Rome”.  There’s a lot of shots of the women bending over in the rice fields, or commiserating in the barracks in their undergarments.  While I’m not one to complain about the view, it does feel exploitative at times.  Then again, it’s a lusty movie often dealing with lusty desires, and a little luridness fits the noir mold.

Dowling is the best among the cast (although, as is typical of Italian cinema of the era, she’s overdubbed) but no one comes off as particularly bad.  There’s a lot of hammy acting going on, but that seems to be what director Giuseppe de Santis was aiming for.  If you don’t object to elevated melodrama, and can deal with a few sluggish spots, there are rewards to be had, especially in the photography.  Rating: Good (78)


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