WANG’S DESIRE to wrest a story out of daily existence and to acknowledge the struggle of making a living makes him heir to the Italian neorealist filmmakers of the 1940s and ’50s, including Giuseppe De Santis. His 1949 film “Bitter Rice,” available for streaming on the new subscription Criterion channel, is a fascinating example of neorealist pulp. It also concerns migrant workers.
A story of the women, known as mondine, who harvest Italy’s rice crop, “Bitter Rice” begins like a documentary with a radio reporter outside the Turin train station, urgently describing the mondine’s annual migration to the rice paddies of the Po Valley. Their backbreaking work is amply acknowledged, but “Bitter Rice” is neorealism plus — a crime melodrama encompassing instances of theft, sabotage, rape, childbirth, references to abortion and multiple violent deaths, including one by suicide. It also features abundant pulchritude. When the movie opened in the United States in late 1950, The Los Angeles Times called it “something like a Hollywood women’s prison movie, only more so.”
Following previous Italian hits “Open City” and “The Bicycle Thief” into the World Theater, a Times Square movie house specializing in imported films, “Bitter Rice” ran for months. The main attraction was the movie’s statuesque, sultry star Silvana Mangano as a teenage rice harvester introduced executing a solo boogie-woogie. Impulsive and naïve, she comes under the spell of a swaggering thief played by Vittorio Gassman, soon himself to achieve international recognition.
“Bitter Rice” is an early example of globalist cinema. De Santis was a leftist whose sweeping panoramic shots of the hard-working and at times singing masses suggest Soviet celebrations of collective labor. He was also a fan of American movies; the two-fisted fight scenes are pure Hollywood. The movie’s frank sexuality, however, struck Americans as distinctly European. “Passion toils and tumbles through it like the wrestlers in a gas-house free-for-all, and torments of carnal hunger are boldly and rawly exposed,” the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his enthusiastic review.
This is undoubtedly why “Bitter Rice” — which, according to Time magazine, would gross nearly $8 million in the United States — was criticized by the American Legion as “a serious threat to Christian morality.” Linked by William Mooring, the film critic for the Catholic journal Tidings, to the international Communist conspiracy, it was briefly banned in Albany, but also nominated for an Academy Award.