The image of Silvana Mangano, clad in tight shorts and black stockings, picking rice and looking to the camera. It’s one of the iconic images of Italian cinema, and Bitter Rice, the film it comes from, is one of the much-too-ignored classics of the postwar period. It’s a fusion of neo-realism and noir, with Mangano as an agricultural worker who befriends Doris Dowling, a thief on the run with a valuable stolen necklace and the cops on her trail. Dowling begins to bond with the women rice pickers, but then her cold-hearted boyfriend Vittorio Gassman appears and things go to pot.
With a script by talented future Italian directors Carlo Lizzani, Gianni Puccini and Mario Monicelli, this is a very good film, mixing a documentary examination of Italian agricultural life in the 1940s, part pacey thriller (including a climactic gun fight in a meat locker), part meditation on the intrusion of mass media, creeping Americanisation and dilution of traditional Italian culture. This has dated a lot better than many Italian films of the time. Note: Doris and her sister Constance Dowling had fascinating lives and caused quite a scandal in Italy; Constance was involved with the poet Cesare Pavese who committed suicide after their relationship broke down (one of his last poems, allegedly about her, was called ‘Death will come and she’ll have your eyes’)