Previous Top Ten By Year lists:
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 1969

Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)
#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler)
#6. The Set-Up (US / Wise)
#5. Caught (US / Ophüls)
#4. The Passionate Friends (UK / Lean)
#3. Puce Moment (US / Anger)
#2. The Third Man (UK / Reed)

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.

This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.

bitter 5

#1. Bitter Rice (Italy / De Santis) (first-time watch)
Two women and two cultures intertwined.

There are two sides to Bitter Rice. One has neorealism, Silvana, and Italy. The other has film noir, Francesca, and America. When all is said and done these two women will have swapped places, for better and much worse. And when Italy’s other neorealist filmmakers see Bitter Rice, they will take it as a betrayal of truth and the political. In short, they hated it. In this time of crucial political upheaval when neorealism carried legitimate cultural cache, director Giuseppe De Santis had made something too slick, too tawdry, and too American. The message was tarnished by the method. But De Santis was a Marxist who happened to admire and study John Ford, King Vidor, and the visual patterns of Hollywood studio filmmaking. He saw mass appeal as a way to both entertain and denounce, and made a film in which neorealism is hijacked and reconfigured to be a noir melodrama.

Bitter Rice has a lot of recognizably neorealist markers; location shooting, a focus on labor and economic struggle, the tactile particulars of rice worker life, and the use of the specific cultural practices such as the choral Coralita. The sound of women wading through water, the way it would around their legs, and the strain of being hunched over day after day — it’s all made vivid. But it is easy to see why Bitter Rice would seem a betrayal. Its mutinous synthesis of “authenticity” and artificiality was a signpost towards neorealism’s end. Soon there would be stars, genre, production in the Italian film industry.

The synthesis is clear from the very first scene. The authenticity of the mondine (female rice workers) is introduced with grandiosity and sweep. There are no docu-elements here, but plenty of elaborate tracking and crane shots to go around, the kind of gradually encompassing images you’d be more likely to find in a DeMille epic. Watching the very first scene I thought: “Wait — what am I in for?”. All preconceived notions were immediately scrapped, and I realized my trip to the rice fields of Po Valley would be a very different one indeed. Then, a couple carrying stolen jewels are chased into the station waiting to transport the workers to the fields. Their arrival feels like an alien invasion, as if some freak chemical accident at the film lab spilled one film into another. This dichotomy plays throughout with electric and arresting cohesion, making it so distinctly unlike any other film from its movement.

While De Santis was inspired by the Hollywood narrative format, he also uses American culture’s insidious postwar presence to illustrate the dangers of breaking from solidarity for hollow (the fake jewels!) individual gain. This is done using the two incredible and complex women of Bitter Rice‘s center. After Francesca the Moll (Doris Dowling, an American actress) is forced to assimilate in the rice fields, she finds purpose among the mondine. In order to stay in hiding, she has to advocate for the rights of her fellow non-contract workers. But this is never done as a means to an end. Francesca never schemes to stay on; she is always shown as sincerely leading the protests for the group. Life becomes bigger than herself, and she learns to stand both as her own woman, and as part of the mondine.

Francesca also begins to see her personal life more clearly. You get the sense that despite loving Walter (Vittorio Gassman), she is not blind to how reprehensible he is (I mean, in the first scene he literally used her as a human shield so….). But she had nowhere to go, and no strength to pull away. Life in Po Valley gives her that strength. The value of the collective is present throughout, with choral scenes, aerial shots showcasing the lines of working women linked together, and fragments of peripheral characters and their various troubles. They push themselves to the brink under oppressive conditions just to make it to the next job, and there is power in their (at times friction-filled) solidarity (I was also reminded of last year’s Support the Girls, also about a community of women united by unforgiving labor).

Then there is the shrewd but naive young Silvana (Silvana Mangano, who I’ll talk about later), a peasant that dreams of wealth. She is seduced by all things coded America and money (she should talk to Caught’s Leonora!). We first meet her doing the boogie woogie (she does a lot of dancing, employed for seduction and statement). In this group of women, where everyone is introduced as part of a whole, she immediately stands out as modern. She chews gum, loves big-band, and is seen reading photo-romances, the then-popular prepackaged fantasies that were read by lower and working class Italian women. Silvana wants out; she longs for adventure, riches, and a certain kind of romance. But the way out that presents itself is a different kind of way out, and she is too blinded by inexperience to understand it.

The camera links Francesca and Silvana all the time. Whether in two-shots or individual spaces, there is an invisible tether between them. Their lives and fates take part in a film-length body-swap. Silvana talks about fate a lot, but is seen making deliberate choices towards certain doom. She can’t see Walter for what he is — an exploiter and a monster. But Francesca gives her an out, replaying about her life with Walter and the terrible things he has done. She tries to take the abuse and hardship she lived through and save someone else from making the mistakes she did. But Silvana can’t see past the jewels and the suit. There is only the potential for excitement, for something that is not this. After all, Walter “looks like a gentleman” (aka a hotshot gumshoe); so he must be, right? While Francesca’s transformation is one of victorious camaraderie, Silvana’s (both actress and character) is altogether much murkier; one marked by punishment.

Silvana Mangano never wanted her body to represent the whole of Italy, but it did. Audiences were scandalized just seeing the unapologetically full female form (au natural, code for Armpit Hair), the kind that becomes sexualized simply by existing. She was the prototype of the “earthy women” that would cause such a stir overseas (later embodied by Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren). She started out by winning Miss Rome, a post-war contest that further enhanced the idea of body-as-nation, and an honor that became synonymous with future screen tests. Unlike Lollobrigida and Loren, Mangano didn’t cash in on overseas notoriety for a Hollywood career. She became resentful of her image, and of fame, eventually giving herself a drastic reinvention (her figure was now svelte and arch, her look cold) and starring in art films by Pasolini and Visconti in the late 1960s and 1970s (and Dune!).

The camera doesn’t ogle Mangano Tex Avery style; this isn’t Jane Russell in The Outlaw. But it aims to stay back, taking in the whole of her whenever possible. And you can’t help but take part in that — I love looking at her. She is the textbook case for why the male gaze is not an open-and-shut case. For all its appallingly absolute authority on the almost-whole of filmic language, women enjoy it too! One of the great joys of watching films is watching bodies, both male and female. I am hypnotized and, yes, completely turned on by Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice. The camera may not be that Tex Avery wolf, but I’ll admit that I am.

Critics felt her body, and Bitter Rice’s eroticism as represented by her, cheapened the film and nullified its political message. Yet a crucial part of its political message is the punishment her and her body endures for betraying the homeland (a tactic that opens up a whole other can of worms). She is eroticized, symbolic, made into a cautionary tale. Her final fugue march is just like Ann Todd’s in The Passionate Friends. Claude Rains gets there in time. Francesca cannot.

bitter 1
(TW: rape, sexual assault)
She is raped. It is a rape that takes away her body. We don’t see much of it after that. In those last thirty minutes she is made up of haunted black pupils, lit like she’s telling a ghost story. She is immediately ostracized by the filmmaking, quarantined off in shots of the mondine in ways you feel more than see. It’s not obvious, but intrinsic and heartbreaking. The most startling example takes place immediately following her assault. It is pouring out (during these scenes a stunning rain shower falls right in front of the camera like a curtain) and the women have banded together, refusing to let the weather set them behind schedule. Silvana walks in a daze, confused and in shock. Ahead, a sick woman who shouldn’t be out in her condition begins having an attack. She howls out, and begins writhing in pain as the women surround her and hold her down. They begin to sing in an attempt to calm her (they are all one). Silvana looks on in horror. This is a mirror image of what she just went through, her trauma reflecting right back at her. She is watching herself. She begins to scream. She is drowned out, not part of the coralita, not part of anything anymore. Her cries go unheard.

The meat locker finale is one last compare-and-contrast session. Both women have guns. Both women have a man beside them. One is shaking and shaken. The other is determined and resolute. Francesca is still trying to save the other end of the tether. There is something so moving and uncommon in Francesca’s committed efforts to protect Silvana despite the harm she causes and rivalry she insists on. It’s hard to put into words how much I love these women, these characters, these performances. Bitter Rice pays such close attention to how women communicate with each other (in both speech and body language, the silent glares and stares may as well be full conversations), and to the breadth of female experience, struggle, and loyalty. We see how hard it is for Francesca to break away from Walter. We see that Silvana’s sense of right and wrong are muddied by what she wants out of life. We see that Silvana’s actions are not unfeeling; there is such pain on her face as she undoes the mondine’s hard work. The list goes on as more layers are pulled back.

Watching Bitter Rice is that all-too rare sensation of not knowing where a film is headed, or what story it will tell (unless you’ve read this before watching). Francesca and Silvana are often hard to read. By the end, that body swap trajectory is clear, but only at the end. And despite the larger-than-life symbolic statuses they represent, they are two of the most layered and human women I’ve ever seen onscreen. They don’t fit into any neat box — not within neorealism, and not within noir. Francesca and Silvana are with me now, and I’m the better for it.

One thought on “Top Ten By Year: 1949 #1 – Bitter Rice (Italy / De Santis)

  1. I read this, before watching. I haven’t seen this.
    Seems like a very bold movie to come out in the 40’s; even tough it didn’t do that well back in the day!! I ought to locate this!!

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