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Cinema Piemonte on the Streets of San Francisco

Cinema Piemonte on the Streets of San Francisco

Laura E. Ruberto (February 16, 2008)
"Riso amaro"

"Riso amaro" is screening in San Francisco soon, leading me to post about one of my favorite films.


In a few weeks the Associazione Piemontesi nel Mondo of Northern California will be screening (gratis!) a series of films set in the Piedmont region of Italy.

They’re showing Cabiria,whose crane shots, marvelous in any era, are downright astonishing for 1914; I Compagni (The Organizer), with Marcello Mastorianni in a somewhat unusual role for an actor who is better known as a Latin lover; Dopo Mezzanotte (After Midnight), a recent film that harkens back to earlier moments in film history; and, my favorite, Riso amaro (Bitter Rice), directed by Giuseppe De Santis in 1949.

Riso amaro shows the forty days of the rice-weeding season in the postwar era. Its narrative borrows elements from neorealism, the documentary, melodrama, and gangster genres. It combines the use of nonprofessional actors, mainly in the role of mondine, with a cast of four stars, including Silvana Mangano as Silvana Melega, a rice worker who gets caught up in the glamour of a crime, betrays her female companions (including a certain Francesca, played by the American actress Doris Dowling), and eventually commits suicide in an effort to atone for her transgression.
The film is actually a good deal more interesting than my plot summary suggests. It shifts back and forth between staid realism and sexy flashiness, all the while telling a story about women’s passions, everyday lives, and work. Further, it offers a tiny glimpse into some of the impetus for Italian postwar emigration.
Movie Poster "Riso amaro"
There’s plenty to say about this film, but let’s begin with a short, blog-friendly list:
            » The film’s release caused quite a stir. For leftists, such as Guido Aristarco, the film was 
             pandering: “i lavoratori non possono essere educati dalle gambe nude di  Silvana” (“the 
             workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana”).  Meanwhile, the Vatican
             attempted to blacklist it because of what were considered pornographic shots of the
             women’s legs and breasts.  (See, for instance, Giuseppe De Santis by Antonio Vitti.)
            » De Santis and other partners in the film’s production won an Oscar nomination  for best
             original story, but the director was not allowed to enter the United States  because of his
             ties to the Italian Communist Party.
             » Various feminist approaches to the film recognize how Silvana is depicted as an            
              Americanized bombshell, who due to her love of a glitzy life, practically self-destructs. In
              particular, such arguments go, we can see the seriousness of her demise in relation to
              the life of the more level-headed Francesca, who changes her criminal ways and comes to
              stand, along with Marco, for a new, socialist-inclined Italy. (See below for more on
              Francesca and Marco.) (See, for instance, Millicent Marcus's "Miss Mondina, Miss Sirena,
              Miss Farina," RLA, 1992 or Anna Maria Torriglia's Broken Time, Fragmented Space.)
My own take on the film is that it manages to underscore women’s position in society and privileges their perspective, their voices, and their bodies’ potential. It does so because of competing perspectives within the film and because De Santis revamps the Italian cinema convention that left women as less-than-significant agents on screen (the true protagonists of the film are frankly the mondine themselves).
Take a look for yourself: though here I’ve posted only a clip, (re)watch the whole film. Without a doubt, the film eroticizes the mondine’s labor through pans of voluptuous women in tight shorts and low-cut blouses, toiling in the marshes, relaxing in the dormitory, and bathing in the stream. But at the same time, we also come to see certain realities of their lives (e.g., the problem of working without a contract, of becoming ill from bad food rations, the frequency of miscarriages) and the potential of alliances among women with different needs and desires.
Doris Dowling, Vittorio Gassmann, Silvana Mangano, and Raf Vallone
Carlo Lizzani, a collaborator on the film, in 1978 wrote:
            La grande zuffa nel fango della risaia propone una gestualità, una coralità di voci  e una
            violenza di comportamento che nel cinema (e non solo italiano) erano presentate come
            tipiche di collettivi maschili (carceri, caserme, penitenziari, piazze, miniere, piantagioni).
           Scene di questo tipo, per il costume dell’epoca erano la provocazione. Un reagente contro
           l’immagine della donna “angelo del focolare” passata pari pari dall’iconografia fascista a
           quella dell’Italia del 18 Aprile.
            the big brawl in the mud of the rice paddy produces a gesture, a concert of voices and a
            violent behavior that in cinema (not only Italian cinema) had been presented as typical of
            male groups (prisons, barracks, penitentiaries, piazzas, mines, plantations). Scenes like
            this one, within the tradition of the era were provocative. A reaction against the image of
            woman as “angel of the home,” an image that had passed intact from a fascist iconography
            to that for the Italy of April 18th.
Lizzani brings up postwar Italy….and I promised more on Francesca and Marco. Marco is a recently-discharged soldier with communist-style rhetoric and aspirations for migrating to Argentina. It’s in South America, “paese vergine,” as he calls it, where he feels he can earn an honest living.
It is by no means random that De Santis alludes to migration. Postwar emigration is key to understanding much of what happened in Italy (and indeed beyond) in the second half of the twentieth century; this film, however subtly, recognizes that importance. Francesca and Marco’s romance, it’s assumed, will not flourish on Italy’s soil, but rather, the possibility of a new Italy marked by their relationship will take root within the communities and cultures of Italy’s many diasporas.

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