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“Bitter Rice”, “The Earth Trembles” and “The Italian/American State of Mind”(culture)

“Bitter Rice”, “The Earth Trembles” and “The Italian/American State of Mind”(culture)

Tom Verso (March 4, 2008)
The Women of Tci Trezza

In film literature, the essence of the Southern Question is dramatically demonstrated by the juxtaposition of two late 1940’s Italian films “Bitter Rice” and “The Earth Trembles.”


 In the October 2, 2007 inaugural article for i-Italy’s Special Section “An Italian/American State of Mind” Anthony Tamburri wrote:


“How do we create an Italian/American State of Mind? We need to be sure that our progeny is aware of our culture…we need to revisit our past, reclaim its pros and cons, and reconcile it with our present. We need to figure out where we came from…so that [we] can engage productively in an Italian/American state of mind.”


There are two points here that, to my mind, should be emphasized. First, without trying to ‘put words into Prof. Tamburri’s mouth’, I understand what he means by “Italian/American state of mind” to be Italian/American “culture.” Thus, paraphrasing, he is calling for us to

“create an Italian American [culture], revisit and reconcile our past [culture] and our present [culture] so that we can engage productively in our [culture] and pass that [culture] on to our progeny.”


Secondly, regarding the question “where we came from”, the answer to that is simple. We came from the areas of Italy south of Rome. Demographic statistics, documentary histories, oral histories, Italian American literature all agree that the vast majority of Italian immigrants prior to 1920 were from the southern main land and Sicily – mostly Sicily.


To my mind, the first step on the road to “creating an Italian/American State of Mind (i.e. culture) is to shout, “WE ARE FROM THE SOUTH!” The Italian American past begins in the regions south of Rome. It is important to emphasize this for there are distinct signs that Italian Americans are losing sight of this fundamental fact of their history and culture. Just a couple of examples: (1) I find it amazing that the founders of the Italian American Museum in New York chose the Column of San Marco in Piazza San Marco, Venice for the logo to accompany the Museum’s website mission statement. What does Venice have to do with American Italianita that presumably the museum is preserving and passing on to younger generations? (2) Italian Americans by the millions travel to the northern Renaissance sites of Italy and claim them as their heritage when in fact there was no Renaissance south of Rome. (3) Food: Parmesan cheese is celebrated as the “King of Cheeses”; seemingly, only the great unwashed in the south would eat sheep or goat’s milk cheese. And, Tuscany is being equated with the essence of Italian cooking as though Italian American cuisine is not a product of southern La Cucina Provera.


Culture is a multifaceted phenomenon that includes: technology, art, science, ethical systems, etc. In all aspects of culture, southern Italy and Sicily present a significantly different face than northern Italy. In the 19th century, Tuscan writer Francesco Forti posited: “Italy ends at the Garigliano”. In the 20th, both Sciascia and Lampedusa, essentially in agreement, portrayed the concept of being Sicilian as a distinctive mentality/culture. The vast differences in the respective cultures of northern Italy and the south gave rise to the 150 years literary, historiographic and social scientific tradition characterized as “The Southern Question.”


In film literature, the essence of the Southern Question is dramatically demonstrated by the juxtaposition of two late 1940’s Italian films “Bitter Rice” and “The Earth Trembles.” Both films written, produced, directed by Italians, filmed in Italy with an Italian cast, depict Italian labor issues; yet, they could not be more different. Not even the language is the same. In The Earth Trembles the characters speak the Sicilian language. When the film was shown in northern Italy it had to be dubbed and subtitled with the northern dialect.


More importantly, the cultural differences are manifest in the respective literary genera of the two films. “Bitter Rice” is a classic example of Hollywoodesque melodrama. Melodrama authoritatively described as: “heroes are unambiguously good, villains unambiguously bad; a villain poses a threat, the hero escapes the threat and rescues the heroine; there is a happy or at least positive ending; poetic justice; an athletic action hero is pitted against an evil villain, and through a combination of fights, car chases, love scenes and splatter, the hero overcomes the villain and restores the balance of good in the universe.” Also, this genre often includes a heroine who falls in love with the hero; sensuously dressed and sexual provocative women; boogie-woogie dancing, etc. Almost all of these melodramatic characteristics are present in and explain why Bitter Rice won raving international reviews including an Academy award nomination for “Best Story”. As late as 1954 it was still playing in American drive-in theaters.


“The Earth Trembles” is the antithesis of melodrama; more like the ancient Greek literary genera Tragedy; i.e. “a tragic hero who is a good man whose downfall and suffering is not the result from crime and punishment; he has good intention but catastrophic undeserved misfortune results from and error in judgment (tragic flaw – ‘hamartia’). He struggles and suffers mightily, and in his travail affirms the greatness of the human spirit.” Much of this is present in and explains why the The Earth Trembles was ‘so not’ met with raving international reviews and Academy award nominations.


One could go into great detail describing the Greek tragic characteristics of this profound literary work; even the villagers acting the Chorus, seeing the inevitable fall that the tragic hero cannot. However, for purposes of this note, symbolically more indicative of the films ancient cultural implications is the location of the fishing village Tci Trezza on the Ionia Sea. Off the coast of the village “three column shaped islands are thought to be the stones throw at Ulysses by Cyclops in the Odyssey.” Further, Tci Trezza is approximately 65 miles from Gela the burial place of Aeschylus, “The Father of Tragedy”; 50 miles from Syracuse where Aeschylus’ “Persae” was performed; and, 10 miles from Catania were many other Tragedies were acted out. In short, “The Earth Trembles” captures the ancient cultural roots “south of the Garigliano.”


None of this is meant to denigrate “Bitter Rice.” On the contrary, it can be thought of as the Parmesan cheese and Tuscan cuisine of Italian film literature. A high quality northern Italian product, very enjoyable but fallaciously mass marketed as quintessentially Italian. My only point is that “Bitter Rice” like Parmesan cheese is a regional product; those who would know and enjoy Italian culture in its totality will not be taken in slick Madison Ave. and Hollywood myth making.


More importantly and ultimately the essence of this blog note: it seems to me, if we are to “create an Italian/American State of Mind and be sure that our progeny is aware of our culture”, Italian American literati and teachers, are obliged to educate the Italian American people about the roots of their culture “south of the Garigliano.” They might start by seeing that the “The Earth Trebles” reaches a wide Italian American audience - especially students; removing the Column of San Marco from the logo of the Italian American Museum website mission statement; and, extolling the virtues of “pasta chi sardi.”


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Is it ever possible that in

Is it ever possible that in a Website called "i-italy" one has to see those two film titles given in English??!!! "Bitter Rice" and "The Earth Trembles", indeed. How about "Riso Amaro" (DeSantis, 1949) and "La Terra Trema" (Visconti, 1948)? Is this what is called "a return to Italian culture"??!!! Don't make me laugh.

G. Iraci Perugia, Italy

South of Rome–West of Ellis Island | i-ITALY

You made some decent points there. I checked on the internet for more information about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this web site. payday loans

i-Italy and Italian language

Dr. Iraic,

It has be some time since we have interacted. Good to hear from and thank you for your comment.

Regarding i-Italy: it is not an Italian site per se. It is bilingual and directed at both Italians and Americans of Italian descent. The vast majority of Americans of Italian descent do not know the Italian language. I have written about the death of the Italian language. If you are interested in my thoughts on the subject, please see by blog article: “The Death of the Italian language in American”

However, even though we don’t know the language, we still ‘stay in touch’, so to speak, with the land of our progenitors via translations of film and literature. Accordingly, I refer to the titles of the films by the translated names and I direct my writing to other Americans of Italian descent.

Best Tom Verso

lruberto's picture

ma dai...

are these constructive comments? Ma dai... I-italy is not just about Italian language but instead about Italian culture, history, and even more so, the culture and history of its rich diaspora. Much of what happens on the site is an effort to reach out to non-Italian speakers who are interested in these subjects. Why not read more about the films themselves--click on the tag "bitter rice" on Verso's piece to read my own take on the film, where I'm sure you will pleased to read the film's titles in Italian too? There is also a portion of i-italy's site where you will find things written only in Italian.

Interested in seeing how Italy's diaspora links back to Italy, check out this:

let's hear what you think of what we write, that's a far more interesting conversation. -Laura E. Ruberto

lruberto's picture

Let's not forget the need for northern and southern alliances!

How refreshing to see juxtapositions between such great films as "Bitter Rice" and "The Earth Trembles"! But I like to think of these two films working together, not against each other, in the collaborative spirit outlined by Antonio Gramsci in his essay “Some Notes on the Southern Question.” Gramsci sees potential alliances between southern “peasants” and northern “workers,” ties that can create a cultural/political hegemony. Both De Santis and Visconti, committed leftists, were fully aware of the postwar social and economic problems facing all of Italy. And, as I suggest in my recent post on "Bitter Rice," De Santis also comments on Italy’s history of emigration in the film. I’m all for recognizing the continued discrepancy between the North and the South, uncovering the history of disenfranchisement and rhetoric of colonization the southern regions were/are subjected to, but I’m uneasy about adopting these issues as rallying calls for Italian American identity. Plenty of Italian Americans (just look at the history of Italians in western states, for instance), do not come from the south. Second, reinforcing a symbolic image of a south that Italian Americans might identify with potentially minimizes the (history) lessons we all still have to learn, the everyday experiences of women and men who create and sustain what it means to be Italian, Italian American, Sicilian, Piemontese, etc. --Laura E. Ruberto