I watched this film for Vittorio Gassman, whom I’ve seen in several other films I’ve liked (I Soliti Ignoti and La Grande Guerra among them). From the very brief description I’d read of Riso Amaro (‘Bitter Rice’) on IMDB, I knew that it was about a jewel thief who, on the run from the police, hides out among workers in rice fields. That sounded like it had potential for humour (why I assumed a Gassman film would be a comedy, I don’t know), so I watched it. And no, Riso Amaro is not funny. Quite the contrary.
The film begins on a railway platform. While a radio announcer gives an introduction to what’s happening around him, hundreds of women mill about, climbing into special trains, settling down… it is the season for planting rice in Northern Italy. As the radio announcer tells us, every year at this time, hundreds of women leave their usual jobs in factories and shops and salons, as seamstresses and more, to go to the rice fields. They will work there for a few weeks, planting and nurturing the precious rice…
At the train station, something more dramatic is happening. While a newspaper boy shouts out the headlines—there’s been a robbery at the Grand Hotel, a priceless diamond necklace has been stolen—the thief Walter (Gassman) comes running and meets his accomplice, Francesca (Doris Dowling), who’s been waiting for him.Walter is worried: the police are after him. He quickly hands over the necklace to Francesca, urging her to hide it. Francesca has two train tickets for them, but Walter ditches that; they have to find their own way.
He tells Francesca to get on to the train that’s taking the women to the rice fields. He’ll catch up with her.
Meanwhile, outside, straw hats are being distributed to all the women, and Walter, getting out, grabs one and plonks it on his head, throwing his own fedora to a pretty young woman (Silvana Mangano), who’s playing music beside the tracks and dancing with abandon. Walter is immediately drawn to her, and begins to dance with the girl—until the cops arrive and he has to escape.
The girl gets on to the train, and there meets Francesca, whom she recognizes; she had seen Francesca with her former dance partner, she says. She introduces herself to Francesca: she’s Silvana, and she’s one of the many women who have a contract to work in the rice fields. When Francesca admits that she has no contract, Silvana tells her not to worry; she knows a couple of men who can help.
To these men, who are also on the train, Silvana introduces Francesca as her cousin, and explains the matter. The men assure her that they can get Francesca work in the rice fields, in return for a commission, part of the money she will be paid. Francesca has little choice; she agrees.
Silvana seems to have swiftly befriended Francesca. They chat, and when they finally arrive at their destination, Silvana and Francesca together enter the huge shed-like buildings where the women are going to be staying for the duration of the rice planting. This building has been occupied by soldiers, who’re just leaving, and one of them, a Sergeant named Marco (Raf Vallone) is just gathering up his gear when Silvana and Francesca arrive to stake claim to the bunk he’s giving up.
There is immediate chemistry between Marco and Silvana. And to some extent, Francesca too, though she is sidetracked when the upper bunk collapses, spilling her suitcase and pitching out the stolen necklace, which is fortunately enough wrapped in a piece of cloth. Marco doesn’t notice, but Silvana does, and she’s curious.
Marco goes his way, Silvana slips away, and Francesca, returning to her things, discovers that the necklace has gone missing. She suspects Silvana, of course, and goes rushing out after the girl. But Silvana is gone, and Francesca’s path is blocked by the contractor, who says Francesca and the other women who don’t have contracts can’t work in the fields.
Naturally, all these women protest, and soon after, they decide that if they can somehow sneak into the fields and show that they work even faster than the contractual workers, perhaps they’ll be allowed to stay on. So they do, with Francesca at the helm, egging on her fellow-workers to work harder, work faster. The women aren’t allowed to talk, because that supposedly interferes with their work; but they’re allowed to sing, and Francesca uses song to urge her lot on.
This draws the ire of Silvana, who (though she covets that flashy diamond necklace Francesca has stolen) looks down on Francesca for being a thief. So Silvana, in song, derides Francesca and the others. The battle-in-song escalates, and Silvana and Francesca finally come to blows—blows that bring them stumbling into the path of the Sergeant Marco, who along with his men, is passing that way.
To him, Silvana and Francesca both appeal; to him, too, the secret about the necklace is told. Marco has no qualms about letting Francesca know that he thinks she did wrong; but he doesn’t have any qualms too about letting her go; he tells an indignant Silvana that it’s none of his business what Francesca does; it’s up to her conscience to give herself up, or whatever.
Marco is very obviously quite attracted to the seductive and uninhibited Silvana by now. Not much later, he confesses his love to her, and tells her to come away with him. Get married, go away, build a new life. But Silvana, while perfectly happy to indulge in some idle passion, has no intention of anything of the sort. Marco’s feelings for her, though he can’t see that at this point, go unreciprocated.
Worse is to come, because who should turn up again like a bad penny but Walter, come in search of Francesca? Walter, who hides out in the huge warehouse full of rice next to where the women are housed?
Walter, who one night, when the women, along with the men of the nearby villages, have an outdoor party, crashes it. Walter, who when he sees Silvana dancing, jumps in and starts dancing with her. And makes it clear that this is not just two people dancing with each other; it’s more. While Walter and Silvana weave a sensuous dance around each other, Francesca watches with worried eyes—and Marco, coming upon them suddenly, loses his temper in a fit of jealousy.
Marco, Silvana, Francesca, Walter. Four people, caught in interlocking triangles of love/hate/passion/jealousy. Four people, who will be thrown into greater turmoil when Walter realizes that all the rice stored in that warehouse is worth a good deal.
Riso Amaro was a critically acclaimed film: it was nominated for Best Story at the 1950 Academy Awards, and was screened at Cannes. Considered an important landmark of the Golden Age of Italian cinema, it’s also an example of the Italian neo-realism which comes forth most disturbingly in films like Bicycle Thieves. Riso Amaro has a lot of the grittiness, the dirt, the dog-eat-dog desperation that you see in Bicycle Thieves, but the melodrama here, or the unequivocal message about crime not paying, puts it in a slightly different space of its own.
What I liked about this film:
The cinematography, the way the scenes are set up with a view to tantalise the eye and leave an impact. Giuseppe de Santis, who directed and wrote Riso Amaro, sets up many angles and scenes that stayed in my mind long after I’d finished watching the film. The women, working in the fields in calf-deep water. Silvana and Francesca, singing defiance at each other. Walter, amidst all that rice in the warehouse…
And, the climactic scene, which is pretty chilling right at the very end.
Silvana Mangano (who, like Vittorio Gassman, shot to fame with Riso Amaro) features strikingly on the Riso Amaro poster, and it’s easy to see why: she is the brash, bold, modern, Americanized face of post-war Italy here. She chews gum, she does the boogie-woogie, she screams judgement at Francesca with the same intensity with which she laughs and jokes with her. She snuggles up to Marco and she lets Walter make love to her: she is wild, uninhibited, complex. Not a character I liked, really, but a character I found mesmerizing.
What I didn’t like:
The story, despite the fact that Riso Amaro was nominated for an Oscar under that category. To me, the story isn’t that great, and there are gaps in it I couldn’t quite swallow. For instance, the romances build up too suddenly and too without logical progression to be believable. These are people wanting to marry each other, too; it’s not as if all they want is a quick tumble in the hay before each goes their way (which I would have understood).
Then, there’s the rice heist Walter’s planning: a bit lame, a bit too dependent on external factors.
Despite those flaws, though (and that could be just me, who sees those as flaws), a memorable enough film. If you’re used to European cinema, you might find this a bit melodramatic, especially near the end, but since I’m used to Hindi cinema, it didn’t matter to me.