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.
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.