Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bitter Rice (1949)

Recently released by Criterion, this 1949 film about rice field workers is notable for its blend of Italian neorealism and pulpy American crime stories. I'm generally weary of genre fusions of this sort because one often gets in the way of the other and vice versa, resulting in a tepid feel of half-baked ideas and characters.

Here though it serves director Giuseppe De Santis' film pretty well if for no reason than the fact that the world of rice farming is a perfect place for criminals to hide out, and affords De Santis plenty of opportunities to have fun with the world he's working in. For example, there's a great scene where one of the workers (all of whom are female by the way, because rice-picking, as we're told, requires small, nimble hands), Silvano (Silvano Mangano) wanders around with a thief, Walter (Vittorio Gassman) who is hiding out at the plantation and planning a rice heist. She playfully flirts with him but then he begins to whip her with a branch. This scene is intercut with shots of the women picking rice in the rain. One of them falls ill and collapses just as a terrified Silvano arrives, having escaped Walter. An emotionally fragile, gullible woman who uses her sexuality as her greatest asset, Silvano seems to think she deserves attention for what she's just been through, but instead all the focus is on the sick worker, who is lifted and taken by away by the women. The rain and the fact that the women can only communicate through singing gives the scene an unsettling feel. This is heightened by Silvano shrieking as she runs alongside the procession, but De Santis' tracking shot situates her in the background, helpless and forlorn, as a somewhat bemused Walter watches from a distance. This interplay between realism and pulp in the same sequence is when the film's at it's best, but De Santis never quite manages this kind of interaction as much as you'd hope.

As a document of Italian rice pickers, the movie is convincing. It goes to great lengths to show how rice picking in Italy, which occurs annually in May, is a crucial event, a time when women from varying backgrounds gather for 40 days to labor in the sun. It's chiefly the wages that bring them there, but there's also a sense of the value of tradition in the way the women journey and work together. It's a job, yes, but also a cultural duty. And De Santis assembles an impressive selection of footage depicting the drudgery of the work, the baking sun, the sweat, and the back-breaking hours. 

But he ultimately foregoes any lengthy treatment of this world in favor of sensationalism: a wet, muddy brawl between the workers with contracts and those without (called scabs), a subplot involving a fake diamond necklace, not just a love triangle, but a love quadrangle, and then of course Walter's plot to steal the rice.

The whole thing basically works, and it's definitely entertaining. But it still feels disjointed: the characters are mostly flat and the heist plot is pretty silly (largely because all of the people involved in it are fairly stupid), but it's impressively acted and mounted, like the best of the American B-movies. The social realism aspect though suddenly seems like just a device, and yet De Santis still treats the world with complete sincerity (the ending reminded me of the closing of Anthony Mann's Border Incident, in which we've just witnessed a genre picture but then are presented with an idea that we've also been watching reality unfold). 

If you want a better version of this type of hybrid storytelling, check out Jules Dassin's Thieves Highway, which puts the world of fruit truck drivers inside a crime plot. I think what that film had that this lacks is a sense that the merging of two styles is ultimately in the service of a character with a convincing motive who the viewer is tied to emotionally. In Bitter Rice, however, the characters are mostly in the service of the different styles, and at the end you can admire De Santis' sense of craft, but mostly just shrug. 

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