How sweet it is to be a fan of Film Noir, to sit down of an evening to watch a Neo-Realist picture, a good one at that, and find as the reels unspool you’ve stumbled into gritty crime territory.
How’s this for an opener? A couple of cons are on the run from a group of determined plain clothes cops in a railway station, one that’s teeming with women on their way to harvest the Po Valley rice crop. In possession of a stolen diamond necklace (hot ice as the likes of Dashiell Hammett might have it) the flatfoots are closing in, which leaves the pair only one choice: him to split in one direction and her to blend into the crowd of itinerants and take the train North. They’ll have to lay low but at least they’ve bought themselves some breathing room, which is as good a Noir premise as you could hope for.
Things start to get interesting when Francesca, the moll to Walter’s gunman, folds herself into the ranks of the female rice field hands. The quota for unionised workers is already full but she catches a break when Silvana, a veteran of the rice game, gets her both a place on the unofficial work crew and a berth in the dorm room. Silvana is not all she seems however. She may be a poor village girl, trapped in a cycle of itinerant work but she saw Walter running from the station cops and clocks Francesca stowing the stolen diamonds inside her mattress. She grabs the loot the first chance she gets and switches dorms.
What follows is a gripping showdown in the rice fields that sees both of the women at the forefront of opposing campaigns. Silvana agitates for union solidarity against what she calls the ‘traitors’ in the paddies, while Francesca gives backbone to the unrecognised field hands, sure to become destitute if denied this seasonal work. The noble sentiments on both sides obscure the real motivations: Silvana’s to remove her rival from the camp so she can keep the stolen necklace; Francesca’s to stay close so she can recover it.
After almost coming to blows the two make up and Silvana hears the story behind the jewlel robbery during a steamy sequence of the two in the dorm together. Both are skimpily dressed and the tone of the conversation is in parts romantic, sexual and dreamy. Silvana returns the diamonds and they both pledge to work together, a spirit that is soon echoed throughout the camp when a violent rain storm threatens a week’s pay and the workers rally round, in ones and twos at first, then in small groups then as a whole, to bring the crop in regardless.
It’s a tribute to director Giuseppe De Santis that he works in themes of solidarity and co-operative life in a way that is neither condescending nor takes away from the story. A man of the Left with Communist leanings (he served twice on the jury of the Moscow Film Festival and condemned neither the events of 1956 in Hungary or the Soviet repression of the Czechs in 1968) his Marxist message is woven throughout yet never overwhelms the story.
Beyond these politics the central performances of the four main leads are great and the camerawork is exquisite, sometimes to the point of awe-inducing. An immaculate film well worth your time.
Bitter Rice – directed by Giuseppe De Santis (1949)
A thief on the run hides amongst the field hands of Northern Italy but the stolen necklace she is hiding becomes a target for more and more people.
Trailer (in Italian) here