16 October 2011 | wjfickling
Just misses being a masterpiece
The principal flaw of this film is the performance of Doris Dowling, mistakenly cast in the role of Francesca. Dowling seems capable of only one facial expression, something between a scowl and a sneer. Why such a wooden American actress was cast in this role when there were so many budding actresses in Italy at the time must remain a mystery.
This film ranks just below such classics of the Italian neo-realist movement as The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine, Open City, and La Strada. Turner Classic Movies is to be applauded for making this rarely seen gem available on their channel. There is a nearly show-stopping performance by Silvana Mangano, a performance that must have been electrifying at the time. Earthy, sensual, voluptuous, Mangano performs with unshaven armpits which she puts on full display when she puts her hands behind her head. This was a gutsy move for an unknown actress who was a former beauty queen presumably aiming for stardom, but this little touch adds immeasurably to the brooding sense of poverty and desperation that pervade the film. It has been said that if Mangano had had more drive and been less controlled by her husband, Dino de Laurentiis, she might have achieved the stature of Loren and Lollobrigida. But alas, it was not to be. The only other notable performance of her career was in Visconti's Death in Venice.
If this film seems excessively proletarian, even Marxist, in its outlook, it is important to remember that Italy was impoverished after WWII and that the Communist Party very nearly came to power in 1948 and probably would have done so had it not been for CIA intervention. The crane shots and other camera work, as well as the superb acting of the women in the smaller roles, are masterful in depicting the drudgery of the toil of the women working in the rice fields. Other aspects of the camera work are masterful. Probably the most famous, or notorious, scene in the film is the one where Mangano takes a reed and playfully pokes Vittorio Gassman with it. Gassman's character is not amused; he takes the reed from her and proceeds to whip her with it repeatedly. Notice the way the camera moves with Gassman as he approaches her, then moves with Mangano as she tries to move away from him in terror. This is masterful camera work. The finale of the film, which I won't reveal here, is shattering as well. The acting of Gassman and Raf Vallone is superb as well.
Until recently this film was unavailable on DVD with English subtitles, but it has recently become available and can be ordered on Amazon. It would be a great addition to anyone's film library. And one final note: another reviewer cautioned parents that there is nudity in this film. This is incorrect. I think he is probably referring to the crane shot that shows the women bathing in the river. They do indeed appear nude, but if you look more closely you will see that they are wearing body stockings and are fully clothed.