Bitter Rice (Blu-ray Review)25 Jan, 2016 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Vittorio Gassman, Doris Dowling, Silvana Mangano, Raf Vallone.
My lady friend keeps roping me into watching the Food Channel, which naturally includes the “Chopped” competitions (what can you make with a parsnip, sea water and a Milk Dud?) and that continuing series about the Western woman who’s always delivering outdoor lunch over a dirt road to her working men — leading me to think that the latter crew ends up ingesting an inch of God’s soil that has accumulated on the top of homemade lasagna or whatever during the drive. But then there’s also the Channel’s kitchen queen Giada De Laurentiis (a dish preparing dishes), who got a gene pool jumpstart at birth courtesy of grammy Silvana Mangano, a onetime Miss Rome who became a fairly major international star in the ’50s. Being married to producer Dino De Laurentiis didn’t hurt, but she was also a formidable presence — and never more so in the potboiler that did more for her career than any other single movie.
This would be director Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice, an almost perfect blend of genuine Italian neo-realism and arthouse sexploitation.
Distribution machinations and the state censorship board being what it was, it didn’t get to my Central Ohio hometown until a couple years after it was made — and then only at a campus theater at a time when ’51 downtown audiences were relegated to June Allyson in Too Young to Kiss and other less-torrid alternatives. By the look of things in what became an arthouse sensation (a term I love), Mangano’s character isn’t too young to do anything, but her character is also naïve and a little green despite the effect she has here on the two male principals (a not insignificant plot point here).
Both in the De Santis remembrance included as a Criterion extra and the accompanying essay by journalist/academic Pasquale Iannone, we hear the famous story about how the director felt the light bulb go on over his head in a train station when he saw a large group of mondine (female rice workers) returning home after a season of painful bending over in the rice fields — grunt work that it is claimed here only women can do. The women live communally in bunkhouses with maybe a portable 78 player to sweeten the nights, and men are mostly a novelty. The two here are played by Raf Vallone in his first major role and Vittorio Gassman — the first a friendly soldier about to be discharged and the latter a petty thief who has just lifted some jewelry from a hotel with a femme accomplice (American actress Doris Dowling of The Lost Weekend and The Blue Dahlia — and later a ‘B’ toughie from my formative grade school movie-going: Running Target). I’ve never been quite sure what Dowling is doing collecting rice in an Italian potboiler, but she’s a smooth fit, even though Mangano blows her off the screen when she dances or merely stands provocatively in water (underarm hair or not).
One look at Gassman, and you know that the love he professes for either woman isn’t on the up-and-up (or even a single up). Worse, there’s also a fatal flaw in terms of payoff during the Gassman-Dowling hotel caper, which has a way of compromising the relationship. All of this adds to some lurid melodrama that plays very well, though the artful overhead shots of the women laboring are of staggering beauty, thanks in part to a Criterion rendering that far surpasses what I was ever able to play at the AFI Theater as programmer or what the Bravo Network showed in the mid-1980s. (More recently, Turner Classic has run the picture, though I never got to check out the print.)
Mangano is the kind of actress who looked good dancing, and her solo gyrations (never overdoing it) provided perhaps the emblematic images of her career. Not long after, she starred in Anna — which, when it got over here in ’53, gave her a No. 5 Billboard hit right off the soundtrack for MGM Records (Mangano, Billy Eckstine and Hank Williams: the MGM a-&-r staff must have been really hustling in the early ’50s). But, no fooling, she could really act. Her performance as a deceived prostitute is the all but inarguable high point of Vittorio De Sica’s once better known anthology film The Gold of Naples, which I finally got around to seeing for the first time just a couple months ago.