During planting season in Northern Italy's Po Valley, an earthy rice-field worker (the seductive Silvana Mangano) falls in with a small-time criminal (Vittorio Gassman) who is planning a daring heist of the crop, as well as his femme-fatale-ish girlfriend, played by the Hollywood star Doris Dowling. Both a socially conscious look at the hardships endured by underpaid field workers and a melodrama tinged with sex and violence, this early smash for producer extraordinaire Dino De Laurentiis and director Giuseppe De Santis is neorealism with a heaping dose of pulp.
Back in 1949, a little Italian film called 'Bitter Rice' was unleashed at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was met with very warm critical praise and audience appreciation. It even went on to be nominated at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay as well. Director Giuseppe De Santis perfectly captured a post war Italy as civil rights, women's rights, and worker's rights were being tested by both the people and the government.
This is also a very raw movie, in that it didn't have any of the "Hollywood" money or set ups, but looked beautiful in its own right. It was the way the story was told and tackled taboo subjects, such as suicide and illegal worker's rights more than sixty years ago. 'Bitter Rice' follows two women in Northern Italy, one of which is named Silvana where she is heading to the big rice fields to work in the Po Valley. She is lucky enough to have the right to work and earn wages, whereas a lot of other women who have been immigrating to earn a living were barred by the government to work for an honest wage.
That's where she runs into Francesca, another woman who is following her boyfriend Walter, who is a thief on the run from the police. They plan to board the train to the rice fields for cover, but are split up when the cops weigh in to close for comfort. Francesca soon realizes she isn't that welcome to work, which leads her and the other immigrant workers to rise up and demand the right to work for pay. Francesca and Silvana fight this cause together, that is until they both fall for a soldier named Marco, which causes tension between the three of them.
Sooner than later, though, Walter shows back up with a big scheme to steal a ton of rice, which Silvana takes a liking to, but Francesca, realizing his manipulative ways, tries to talk her out of a thievery life with dire consequences. This isn't exactly your happy-go-lucky Hollywood film. There are some real tragic subjects tackled here and Giuseppe never looks the other way from these aspects.
Giuseppe also wanted to show how American capitalism was a temptress, who persuaded people into spending hard earned money on "bad" things and not something of real value, which is where Silvana came in, as she was the most beautiful woman in the rice fields, who used her good looks to seduce and tease people. Her performance is one of the bright shining lights in this film, and I wish she was nominated for an Oscar for her role, because she definitely deserved it.
The beautiful shots of the Italian countryside look incredible as well here, which gives the film its beauty in a chaotic time and place amongst these workers. 'Bitter Rice' is one of those older films that still stands the test of time and is as relevant today as it was over sixty years ago.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Bitter Rice' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc and is Region A locked from Criterion with the spine #792. It is housed in a clear hard plastic case with a foldout booklet with an essay from Pasquale Iannone about the film and the director. There is also information on the transfer and cast and crew. The reverse side is a small poster of the film.
'Bitter Rice' comes with a very good 1080p HD transfer and is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this is a new high-definition transfer from the original 35mm camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and flicker were manually removed and it was supervised by Lee Kline. This 1949 film looks great with this new transfer. The image is vastly improved here. The detail is vivid and sharp for being a 66-year-old movie.
Close-ups reveal facial lines and makeup blemishes and the wider shots show off the sometimes beautiful landscape of Italy. There is a layer of grain that tends to fluctuate from time to time, specifically after transitions, but they aren't a huge issue. The black and white colors are well-balanced throughout, even showing some different shades of grays and whites to give the image a lot of depth. Criterion has done a good job making the film look as natural as possible too without any major sharpening tweaks.
This release comes with an Italian LPCM 1.0 mix with English subtitles. According to the Criterion booklet, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the optical track print. Pops, cracks, hiss, and clicks were manually removed. This is a fairly limited audio mix, being this is from the 1940s and has a mono track.
That being said, all of the sound effects and ambient noises sound natural and well-balanced here. There just isn't any real immersion or a ton of highs and lows to give the sound field a ton of depth. The dialogue is crystal clear and easy to follow along with the English subtitles, and never hits those tinny notes. There are no other issues with this audio presentation from Criterion.
'Giuseppe De Santis' (HD, 53 Mins.) - This is a 2008 documentary on the director of the film and was produced by Carlo Lizzanni, who wrote 'Bitter Rice'. The piece takes a look at the life and career of Giuseppe with an emphasis on 'Bitter Rice' with tons of archival interviews from his colleagues and actors.
Interview with Carlo Lizzani (HD, 7 Mins.) - This is an interview with Lizzani from 2002 as he discusses his work on 'Bitter Rice' and how he became involved in the project.
Trailer (HD, 4 Mins.) - The trailer for the film with optional English subtitles.
Criterion Booklet - This is a foldout booklet with an essay from Pasquale Iannone about the film and the director. There is also information on the transfer and cast and crew. The reverse side is a small poster of the film.
'Bitter Rice' is a beautifully tragic film about a couple of women working in the rice fields where one is enthralled and tempted to leave an honest job for a life of crime, while the other learns that an honest job is more fulfilling than any dangerous life might lead to -- with undertones of women's and workers' equal rights. This is truly one of the great films of its time. The video and audio presentations are both good with a decent collection of extras. Again, Criterion has knocked it out of the park with this release. Highly Recommended!