Bitter Rice is a hopeful film, as rousing a myth of national unity as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Its young director, Guiseppe De Santis, was a member of the Italian Communist Party who had fought with the Roman Resistance, putting him in a strong position at the liberation. His first feature film, The Tragic Hunt (1947), received funding from the National Association of Italian Partisans and won the award for Best Italian Film at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.
A story of crime and passion set in the rice fields west of Milan, Bitter Rice owes much to James Cain, as far as its story is concerned, and to Dorothea Lange’s images of sharecroppers in the American South for its cinematography. Indeed, De Santis was an assistant director on Obsession (1943), Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but as a doctrinaire Marxist, his ultimate objective was to glorify the working people of Italy while revealing the evils of capitalism.
In a famous sequence in Bitter Rice, the corrupting influence of American culture is juxtaposed against the class solidarity of the women rice workers: Silvana (Silvana Magnano), the bad girl who will betray her fellow laborers, is shown dancing the boogie-woogie, watched by a gum-chewing low-life, Frank (Vittorio Gassman), who abandons his lover Francesca (Doris Dowling) to join her.
Silvana is portrayed like a Hollywood pin-up girl, and no small part of Frank’s allure is his promise to take her to America, where “everything is electric.” The sexual attraction between these two is tangled up in a their shared passion for material things; where Francesca finds fulfillment in honest work, Silvana is a willing accessory to the crime, conceived by Frank, to flood the rice fields and steal the harvest, realizing only belatedly the error of her ways when she learns that the necklace he gave her is paste. Guilt-ridden, she kills her lover and jumps from a wooden tower to her death, but she is forgiven by the other workers, who file past her body at the end of the film, each scattering handful of rice over the fallen woman.
The message feels heavy-handed today, but Silvana Magnano’s mesmerizing performance and the brilliant camerawork make Bitter Rice well worth watching. American censors may have agreed with the Italian Marxist critic who complained, “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” but you can’t tell me that Kim Novak’s climb up the wooden steps of the bell tower in Vertigo (1958) wasn’t influenced by Silvana’s suicide.