Starting out my new column, Italian Feminist Films, I'm reviewing the 1949 film Riso Amaro, starring Silvana Mangano, Vittorio Gassman, Doris Dowling, and Raf Vallone. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story, and was also entered in the Cannes Film Festival. The title is based on a pun, as "riso" means both "rice" and "laughter" in Italian. (Spoilers ahead!)
The film opens with a radio announcer letting us know that it is the time of year where all the women leave to work in the rice plantations. He says:
Hard work that never changes, knee-deep in water, bent double under the hot sun. But only women can do it. It needs quick, light hands. The same hands that patiently thread needles and nurse babies.
As the viewer, you hear this and get the impression that these women are "weak" or "fragile." Then, you see the women marching towards the trains to take them to the rice fields, and you witness their strength.
The film revolves around two thieves who attempt to outsmart the law, and fiery rice worker they meet along the way. Francesca (Dowling) and boyfriend, Walter (Gassman), run through the crowd of rice workers to blend in and board the train to the fields. On their way to the train, Walter stops himself to watch the beautiful, Silvana (Mangano), as she dances. There is a crowd around her, and she dances in a cute and flirtatious way. Walter is in awe of her. Francesca sees Walter's reaction to Silvana, and immediately becomes jealous. Though, you get the sense that Francesca is used to this.
Francesca and Silvana build a friendship, as Silvana knows Francesca is not a documented worker. Both women seem to be tired of the men in their lives. Silvana is constantly hit on, and her way of dealing with this is by exuding her sassy and brash verbal acuity. In one instance, a handsome soldier, Marco, (Vallone) asks for her name. Silvana responds, "Why, you'll write me?", in a playful, snarky tone. Marco replies, "'Lots of kisses from Marco'", and he leans in to kiss Silvana. With a guttural response, Silvana grabs his face and pushes him away from her. Likewise, Francesca is sick of being treated as second-rate by Walter, who is just using her to help with the stolen goods.
Silvana's character is independent and strong. She's a loudmouth, who snaps her gum. Francesca is drawn to her, because Francesca, too, is strong-willed. However, Francesca is currently involved with a man who treats her poorly. The irony is that the more Francesca becomes drawn to Silvana, she is further removed from her boyfriend, though Silvana then becomes under Walter's spell.
As women workers, all of the women come together to protest their male bosses, as the bosses want to send back any "illegals," or workers who do not have contracts with them. Francesca is an "illegal," and she stands up to her superiors, because she wants to work. This is the point in which Francesca's feminist nature grows even more, and she finally sees Walter for who he really is, though it does take a bit longer for her to shake him.
Throughout the film, there are many "women's songs" sung by the women as they work. They are not allowed to talk while they work, but singing is permitting. The unity between the women is remarkable, even though earlier they do have a few issues to work out. Eventually, the contracted workers and "illegals" all decide that if the "illegals" can't work, no one will work. These women are calling the shots, and it's awesome.
Silvana becomes mixed up with Walter, and is now his new partner in crime. Walter comes up with plan to steal all of the rice the women had worked so hard for. Silvana helps him with this, but inevitably feels guilty. In one of the last scenes, a fight breaks out between Marco, Francesca, Walter, and Silvana. In the end, Silvana decides to kill Walter.
The film did a good job showcasing a strong, sexy female lead, which seems to be customary of Italian film. I would definitely recommend watching it. Excellent Saturday night movie viewing. If only it was on Netflix streaming...