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Bitter Rice

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Bitter Rice is a heck of a film. It’s the story of a couple of refugees from an American film noir who stumble into a grindhouse showing an Italian social-issues drama. The beautiful losers are Walter and Francesca (Vittorio Gassman and Doris Dowling), a pair of small-time crooks on the run following the heist of a lifetime. The social conscience is personified by a class of peasant women who have for hundreds of years traveled from all over the country to work hard days in the rice fields of northern Italy, and also by, to some degree, ethical, committed soldier Marco (Raf Vallone), who lingers in the rice fields after his discharge because he has come to care about the fate of the women there. And the sex appeal is provided, in spades, by Silvana Mangano, a bombshell and a half. When producer Dino de Laurentiis and director Giuseppe De Santis cast the 18-year-old in the role, she had already appeared in a few films and had been the teenaged girlfriend of young Marcello Mastroianni. But her performance in Bitter Rice–a role that had her shaking her tits, swinging her hips, and hiking her skirt up to here–made her an overnight sensation.

Though it shares some characteristics with noir, Bitter Rice comes straight out of the original Italian post-WWII neorealist movement. It’s much pulpier than textbook neorealism, but it also feels earthier and more grounded than your typical noir. It’s definitely more fun than most neorealistic works, pitting its characters against each other as they jockey for power, shelter, and affection. A cadre of laboring mondine in short shorts or with their skirts hitched up above their thighs might not raise the body temperature of young cinephiles raised with access to Rihanna’s Instagram feed, but in 1949 it must have been quite a diversion. At any rate, according to Gregory D. Black’s book The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975, the film’s U.S. distributor didn’t even bother running it by the Production Code office for approval before booking it in theatres on both coasts. The code’s enforcer, “Mean” Joe Breen, was no doubt dismayed at reports that the picture’s wanton display of female flesh was at once “flagrant and purposeful.” If Bitter Rice annoyed the censors, it ran into similar trouble with left-wing critics who applauded the political aims of neorealist cinema and thus deplored the introduction of salaciousness and genre-film elements into such a film. “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” complained the Marxist critic Guido Aristarco. He had a point: As complete as Bitter Rice‘s commercial success was, its more sensational elements heralded the decline of neorealism, as Italian audiences grew impatient with hard-luck stories and filmmakers began taking more cues from Hollywood cinema, which dominated the local box-office.

I’m not saying De Santis was deliberately moving away from neorealist principles. In fact, he takes pains to balance the movie’s genre pleasures by underscoring the story’s roots in reality. The opening scene features a narrator speaking directly to the audience to bring context to what we’re about to see: a grandly-choreographed tableau of a station where hordes of female laborers are boarding trains bound for the Po Valley rice fields. As the camera pulls back, the fourth wall drops into place as the man assumes the persona of a broadcaster and declares, “This is Radio Turin,” before continuing to describe the scene, which De Santis pans across to establish the grand scale of his production–scores of women walking, a train chugging towards the station, trucks passing by–before the camera alights on a pair of undercover cops scanning the crowd. Another impressive tracking shot, this one moving sideways alongside one of the train cars (we see the passengers inside, framed through their little windows), stops to introduce Silvana (the character shares Mangano’s first name), dancing among a group of women in repose as, in the background of the scene, a line of workers carrying baskets moves purposefully, in counterpoint to her relative abandon.

It’s all the stage-setting the picture needs. Walter dances briefly with Silvana before he is spotted by police. He flees the scene and Francesca boards a train out of town, stolen loot in hand, blending in easily with the migrant workers. Meanwhile, the attentive Silvana quickly deduces that Francesca and Walter were behind a newsmaking jewelry theft. Thus a romantic triangle is created, and the necklace Francesca clutches in a perfumed handkerchief becomes a talisman of sorts that changes hands, rising and falling in significance, over the course of the feature. So that’s the pulpy, noirish storyline. It’s carefully interwoven with a salt-of-the-earth tale of Italian labor, as a group of uncontracted workers (including Francesca) faces off against unionized labor for a share of the rice fields. Bitter Rice shows the adversarial relationship turning to solidarity as a community develops among workers all sharing the same kind of hard-luck stories regardless of their status. And there are metaphors aplenty. Walter’s crass treatment of both Francesca and Silvana suggests the exploitation of the Italian poor by its formerly fascist government, and Silvana’s enthusiasm for tabloids and the boogie-woogie symbolizes the encroaching, hegemonic influence of the U.S., which may have given Jean-Luc Godard some ideas.

What really distinguishes Bitter Rice is De Santis’s commitment to formal dynamics in ways that marry the social drama to the crime drama. The first real indication that De Santis is flirting with something akin to magic realism comes when the farmhands distribute wide-brimmed hats to the women for protection from the sun; the ensuing scene plays out with a plethora of hats spinning endlessly through the air in the background of shots, eternally aloft, as a chorus of women sing in unison about their work in the rice fields. The image has an unreal, almost storybook quality that threatens to sentimentalize hard labor. A scene in the film’s midsection where Walter dances with Silvana a second time, leading to a violent confrontation with Marco, is a master-level study in cinematic choreography, as the camera and the characters together make precisely-executed movements and the editorial rhythm builds to a fevered pace. As the mondine band together to protect themselves by going to work despite heavy rain–missed days in the fields will keep them working longer, putting their harvest contracts back home at risk–Silvana instead sneaks off with Walter, leading to the strongest and most harrowing sequence in Bitter Rice: Silvana teases Walter by poking at him with a long, slender branch; he grabs it away and starts whipping her with it in a scene that descends into a violent rape.

The film cuts immediately to measured, evocative shots of the women working in the downpour, with Otello Martelli’s high-contrast cinematography lending their faces a stark, severe look. The blankets tented over their heads suggest religious drama; as one of their ranks falls ill, the others attend to her in way that, photographed from a crane looking down, resembles the petals of a flower closing gently around the ailing woman. There’s a tremendous sense of beauty and fellowship here that nonetheless alienates the traumatized and needy Silvana, who shows up only when the group is already rallying around one of its own. The sequence culminates in a tracking shot showing Francesca carrying the sick mondina, a group of weeping women falling in line behind her, as Silvana runs clumsily alongside them in parallel, stumbling and falling into a ditch, her isolation and despair complete. The last we see of her in this scene, she is alone in the frame, staggering away from the camera while Walter watches, unperturbed, from the safety of a reverse-shot edit.

The sexual politics are a touch dubious but not out of the ordinary for films of this era. It’s hard to shake the feeling that De Santis and his co-writer Carlo Lizzani are scolding Silvana for her regard for American culture as well as punishing her for licentiousness. Feminist readings center on Francesca, who is intelligent enough to eventually see through Walter’s manipulative, controlling routine–it’s the implication that she is a piece of property that is his to give away that drives her finally to action at the climax. Yet if De Santis is more condescending to Silvana’s character, he is also strongly empathetic with her. The camera evokes sympathy for her even during her humiliation, tracking along with her as she moves through the rice fields, going in close as she begins to comprehend the mess she’s made during the film’s slaughterhouse showdown. Mangano’s performance isn’t technically accomplished, but it is stirring nonetheless; you can read the moral epiphany on her face, and you can see that it absolutely wrecks her. And there’s the key–beyond the sex, the guns, and the jewels, Bitter Rice is anchored by its fierce convictions about right and wrong, justice and injustice. Mangano’s downfall isn’t so much her sexuality as it is her selfishness and avarice. Walter’s real criminality is the scheme he hatches to steal the stored rice that’s meant for distribution to the mondine. And De Santis’s accomplishment isn’t the debasement of neorealism some regarded it as–it’s a combination of humanism, technical skill, and straight-up showmanship serving a timeless story of class- and gender-based exploitation. As a political tract,Bitter Rice lacked purity. As cinema, its head-spinning melange of social commentary, romantic melodrama, heist picture, and, yes, shimmying movie musical is crystalline.

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THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Bitter Rice should go some way towards raising De Santis’s profile in the U.S. (where neorealism is generally taught along the Rossellini-De Sica axis), even though extra features are scanty and the HD transfer is solid but unspectacular. Criterion’s liner notes are unusually vague when it comes to the provenance of this master, averring only that a “new high-definition digital transfer” was created from the “original camera negative.” Criterion’s Lee Kline is credited as the transfer supervisor, though the grading was performed in Rome by the Digital Factory at Cinecittà Studios. The resulting 1.33:1, 1080p presentation is attractively silvery and low-contrast–maybe a mite too low-contrast, as there’s a flatness to some shots that threatens to smooth out details completely, particularly in the highlights. Even with the restricted dynamic range, the picture has a pleasantly filmlike quality and it may underscore an aesthetic distance between the neorealist tradition and the more contrasty films noir out of Hollywood. There are some minor image imperfections (scratches, mainly), and a handful of shots, like one at the end where some of the women sprinkle rice on a body on the ground, exhibit notably less detail than the bulk of the film. The LPCM monaural audio is similarly OK. It’s remastered from an optical track and was substantially cleaned up, although surface noise is still quite audible and there’s an unavoidable brittleness to the sound, especially at higher volumes.

In a seven-minute interview originally recorded in 2002, De Santis’s co-writer Carlo Lizzani remembers the making of Bitter Rice, tracing its genesis to the director’s encounter with a large group of mondine departing for the rice fields at a train station in Turin on his way to Paris. Among other topics, Lizzani describes the film’s reliance on co-writers like Carrado Alvado to maintain the scenario’s working-class authenticity; the discovery and casting of journalist and former soccer player Vallone (who he calls “our Virgil”); and the decision to make Silvana Mangano’s role more prominent than originally planned.

Beefier scholarship can be found in “Giuseppi De Santis”, Lizzani’s 53-minute documentary on the filmmaker from 2008. Like the previous featurette, the image quality is strictly standard definition although it has been upscaled to 1080i, with some of the archival footage–including excerpts from interviews with De Santis himself–cropped on the top and bottom to 16×9. Generally, the program frames the director’s career in the context of Italian neorealism. It discusses neorealism’s political roots in the Italian resistance, the rarity of three-dimensional female characters in Italian cinema of the period, and De Santis’s status as “the Hollywood soul of Italian cinema,” as writer Steve Della Casa puts it in a talking head. De Santis’s childhood in the central Italian city of Fondi is considered, as is the critical re-evaluation he underwent following a neorealist conference/retrospective at the 1974 Pesaro Film Festival and the politically-motivated ostracization from the film industry he faced in the last 20 years of his life. It turns out that De Santis wouldn’t make anything he didn’t believe in–and that’s why he’s seen here on screen, insisting that his unproduced projects should be considered alongside his finished work as crucial elements of his biography.Bitterrice1

The Night Porter

The Night Porter is one of the most bizarre psychodramas in the history of film, using the Holocaust as a dreamy, abstract backdrop for a toxic romance between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the “little girl” (Charlotte Rampling) he isolated, humiliated, and raped in a Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds absolutely outrageous, that was surely part of the design. This wasn’t Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or another in the short-lived cycle of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures. This was Italian director Liliana Cavani’s first English-language feature, and Bogarde and Rampling were English-language stars. In order to recoup, The Night Porter would need to be provocative. Cavani delivered on that score. European critics are said to have taken the movie’s sociopolitical context seriously, but upon arrival in New York its outré imagery generated a mix of critical scorn and mockery that, ironically, helped earn it big returns at the box office. (Vincent Canby’s pan deriding it as “romantic pornography” was highlighted in the advertising.) If you know nothing else about the film, you probably know its signature image–Rampling, wearing black leather gloves and an SS officer’s cap, her bare breasts framed by the suspenders holding up a pair of baggy pinstriped trousers, tossing a Mona Lisa smile at the camera. That key art has kept The Night Porter  in demand for more than forty years now, from arthouses and VHS tapes to DVD and now Blu-ray releases under the Criterion imprimatur.

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Reality

Matteo Garrone does a 180 from his acclaimed crime film, Gomorrah, in this keenly observed cautionary tale about pop culture, moral scruples, and the human mind’s capacity for self-delusion. The title is ironic, yes — the film’s charismatic but hapless fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) spends his time coming unglued, losing his perspective as a working-class family man as he sacrifices his ordinary life in a misguided bid to become a reality-TV star.

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Night Train Murders

It’s feeding time for the monsters again in director Aldo Lado’s 1974 quasi-giallo Night Train Murders, which sees the young and lovely Margaret and Lisa (Irene Miracle and Laura D’Angelo, respectively, making their film debuts) cross paths with violent criminals while travelling overnight by rail from Germany through Austria to Italy. The stage is set as Pacino-esque stickup man Blackie and his harmonica-blowing sidekick Curly (Flavio Bucci and

Gianfranco De Grassi) mug an alcoholic sidewalk Santa Claus in Munich’s Marienplatz. Menace! With that kind of element loose in the cities, why would two girls choose to ride some skeevy midnight train into Italy instead of opting for a sensible air flight? From one mother to another, via telephone: “Planes are never on time these days.”

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Certified Copy

Juliette Binoche in <em>Certified Copy</em>

Certified Copy, which opens on a lecture consigning the concept of originality in art to the Academy of the Overrated, is an awesomely playful intellectual romance (or is it a farce?) from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. When I say playful, I mean confounding in the manner of Last Year at Marienbad, which basically dared viewers to say which competing, contradictory story threads represented real events in the film’s world. I mean bewildering in the style of Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, which had two different actresses playing a single character. And when I say that, what I really mean is that it’s a bracingly reflexive exercise that flouts basic rules of narrative cinema and manages to come out ahead of the game.

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Django

Franco Nero in <em>Django</em>

When Django, the title character and hero of director Sergio Corbucci’s seminal spaghetti western, first appears on screen, he’s slogging on foot through mud, dragging a coffin behind him. The image is evocative and challenging. In classic American films, western heroes had generally been dignified cowboy types saddled up on strong horses. They were lawmen or simple ranchers with a code of honor. They rode into town in a cloud of dust and plainspoken righteousness backed up by a sharp eye and a six-shooter, and they stood for the endurance of traditional values on a wild frontier.

Django thinks those guys were pussies.

Read the full review at FilmFreakCentral.

Vincere

Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi in <em>Vincere</em>
In the first scene of Vincere, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), addressing a small gathering, borrows a watch, then declares that he is giving God five minutes to strike him dead. To Mussolini, God’s failure to do so is proof that He does not exist. It’s possible the film’s writer and director, Marco Bellocchio, agrees with him on this point at least.

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Dellamorte Dellamore

Francesco Dellamorte has a bit of a problem. He’s the live-in watchman at Buffalora Cemetery in northern Italy, where the corpses are crawling back out of their graves after spending a mere week or so in the ground. As you can imagine, that’s something of a nuisance, but if he reports it to the authorities, he’s certain of one thing — they’ll shut down the cemetery to investigate, and Francesco will be out of a job. Since he can’t have that happening, he keeps a loaded pistol with him, which he carries to the door whenever he answers a knock. It’s usually just one of them coming back, and a single bullet blown solidly through the head — where have you gone, George Romero? — takes a zombie down easily enough. For a misanthrope like Francesco, it’s a pretty good gig.

Surrounded by death, and with only the clumsy and deformed Gnaghi for company, Francesco’s life is pretty stable until he falls for a mourning widow. Anna Falchi plays the object of his desire (known in the credits as “She”), whom he seduces in the Buffalora Ossuary (where the bones of the dead are deposited); the two indulge their strange affections on her poor husband’s grave. Naturally, the old man comes back. The woman dies in her spouse’s ensuing fit of jealous violence, and Francesco is stricken with despair. Naturally, She comes back again. And again.

That’s only the surface of the remarkable Dellamorte Dellamore. You might expect even a stylish horror director to milk these situations for all they’re worth, but Michele Soavi knows that zombie hijinks have been done to death by such precocious directors as Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Accordingly, the movie never stops moving, twisting and turning its way to an oddly existential climax. The scenario, written for the screen by Gianni Romoli from a comic book scenario by Tiziano Sclavi, concentrates on the human characters rather than the zombies, and gives as much play to turmoil of the spirit as it does to the carnage that spills from the body. The world of Francesco Dellamorte runs parallel to George Romero’s zombie apocalypse. Like Romero’s trilogy, and quite unlike many of its imitators, Dellamorte Dellamore is a zombie movie with character.

I have to wonder what American audiences are expecting on the way into this picture, given that the normally staid October Films has created a mild cheeseball of an ad campaign to push the film into U.S. theaters. “Zombies, Guns and Sex, OH MY!” reads the tagline, stripped across poster art that may lead audiences to believe that Cemetery Man is actually a cheap horror flick from the 50s or 60s. I find it hard to believe that this campaign will actually attract a discriminating audience, but stranger things have happened, and we’ll just have to see. Rest assured that Cemetery Man/Dellamorte Dellamore is a confident, creepy little horror film with a winning sense of humor, a sure feel for outrageous imagery, and a healthy mean streak.

As played by Rupert Everett (Ready to Wear), Francesco is a misfit and a nihilist. (The main character in the Dylan Dog comic book series originated by Sclavi is based on Everett, and his casting here is something of a coup.) He’s also a remarkable Everyman who commands our attention and our sympathy as he slouches toward the inevitable. Francois Hadji Lazaro’s Gnaghi is by turns irritating and pathetic. (You may have seen Lazaro as the meanest-looking cyclops in City of Lost Children.) By the time he develops a decidedly unhealthy crush on the mayor’s daughter (and the mayor’s daughter’s disembodied head), Lazaro has invited viewers to inhabit his character, and the results are unsettling. The relationship is consummated at the end of the film, but these two are shown early on to be classic codependents. Along those lines, the movie exhibits a well-developed sense of humor that goes a long way toward eliciting the viewer’s sympathy. The characters aren’t very pleasant, but you start to identify with them in spite of yourself. By the time the movie is over, their predicament almost seems to take on mythic proportions.

Herein seems to lie the problem for many American critics, who have been less than impressed with what may be a vigorous political allegory. I guess I’m a little slow, but I didn’t understand right away that the Italian citizens who are zombified — a disquietingly fascist troupe of boy scouts, Buffalora’s highest ranking incompetent bureaucrat — may represent the dead archetypes of Italian society come back to haunt the living. Instead, I fell for the grisly comedy and the sharp cinematic style, which references such influential pictures as Vertigo and Once Upon a Time in the West (on which Soavi’s progenitor Dario Argento received a story credit). And while that bastion of genre reporting, Cinefantastique, had decidedly unkind words for the film’s alleged misogyny, I read it instead as a look inside poor Dellamorte’s head. Francesco, as noted above, is an equal opportunity curmudgeon, and if She is treated as the most maddening of all the characters, it’s because she is the object of Francesco’s most maddening obsessions. At the same time, I think these critics complain a little too much. Stephen Holden, writing in The New York Times, criticized the film’s decision to make Francesco impotent — missing the important joke, which is that he’s really not impotent at all, despite the rumor around town (you have to wonder if Holden left partway through).

The cemetery itself is a triumph of production design, an inhabited world with curious nooks and crannies (the Ossuary, Gnaghi’s cellar in the watchman’s house). It’s also a representation of Francesco’s state of mind, and the essence of the movie rests in the ways he discovers to break away from it. Gory and playful, darkly humorous and flippantly bleak, Soavi’s film is a joyride through a sullen state of mind. After Francesco takes his revenge on the world outside, and sets himself to escaping from the life he’s made, Dellamorte Dellamore finally offers up its own definition of madness.