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…
My original plan had been to watch and review Neecha Nagar, and follow it up by watching and reviewing Kurosawa’s Donzoko (also based on The Lower Depths). By the time I’d read Gorky’s play and seen Neecha Nagar, that plan had changed a bit—because I was feeling sorely in need of a funny film. La Grande Guerra was what I chose, because it had come highly recommended by friends whose judgment I trust.
I am not a party animal. I do not drink. I have two left feet. Loud music makes my head throb. I find it difficult to keep awake after 11 PM. So when friends ask, “What’re you doing on New Year’s Eve?” I say, “Watching a movie at home.”
And what better way to say goodbye to a bad year with a film that you hope will be a sign of things to come? A movie that embodies all the joy you want for the dawning year?
Don Camillo (Le Petit Monde du Don Camillo in French – it was a Franco-Italian production) is the story of a little town in the Po Valley in Italy. Even though it is named for its lead character, the Catholic priest of the town, the film is not just about the hot-headed Don Camillo and his arch-enemy, the communist Mayor Peppone, but about the little town itself.
When I think of I Soliti Ignoti (literally, The Usual Unknown Thieves, though the English title of the film is Big Deal on Madonna Street), this is one of the scenes that comes to mind: one evening, a pawnshop is about to close for the day. A thief’s decided to hold up the pawnshop and steal all the jewellery in the safe. He arrives at the shop with a pistol in his hand, a newspaper draped over it.
When the last customer at the counter has gone, the thief steps up to the counter, points the gun at the man behind the counter and says, “Do you know it?”—indicating the gun.
The man behind the counter reaches over, grabs the gun, and has a quick look at it before saying, “Sure I know it. It’s a small calibre Beretta, in very poor condition. One thousand lira.”
When the thief stands there, gaping, the man adds, impatiently: “Well?!”
The thief snatches his gun back and leaves the pawnshop, too disgruntled to bother holding it up.
The first time I heard about this film, it was in connection with the Hindi film Do Bigha Zameen (1953), the story of a poor family that tries desperately to cling on to the one thing that stands between it and utter destitution—a tiny plot of land. I’d heard that Do Bigha Zameen was based on Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves).
Having finally seen this, I have to admit I find little similarity between the two films. True, as in Do Bigha Zameen, here too only one thing can save the family from starvation: in this case, a bicycle. And here too, it’s the father and his young son who set out together in a desperate attempt to save themselves. Other than that, the tone, the story and the general mood of the two films is very different. And much as I admire Bimal Roy, I have to admit: De Sica wins. Ladri di Biciclette is much more powerful and haunting than the relatively melodramatic Do Bigha Zameen.