”How nostalgic!” exclaims a woman over the opening shot of a rising sun and the melancholy sound of an accordion in “Rice Girls”. These words sum up her memories of days gone by and describe at the same time the dominant mood of Matteo Bellizzi’s documentary about rice workers in Northern Italy.

Anette Olsen
Script writer, webfilm producer in Safran Film and journalist based in Denmark. Former editor of DOX Magazine (2001-02 and 2004-05).

Bellizzi is not afraid to create a nostalgic slant by using fictional devices to tell the story of the rice workers. He reunites a group of now elderly women who once worked their fingers to the bone in the rice paddies of Northern Italy. Intercutting scenes from the Italian film Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) by Guiseppe de Santis, the director parallels film history and fiction. Some of the former rice workers were hired as extras for the film that in their opinion had little in common with real life.

In a staged scene the women leave the village for the very rice fields they worked in fifty years ago. They walk through the streets singing, fitted out with the kind of broad-brimmed hats they used to wear back then. In the old days they went by train as we see in archive footage intercut with the staged scenes of the present, but in the film they go by bus. The fabricated leaving scene works well, both as a document and as a cinematic device that adds emotion and nostalgia to the story. The ladies arrive at the farm that is now abandoned and – surprise! – some of the men who worked at the farm are there, too. The old trick works: memories are stirred.

Swollen legs, sore backs, poor wages and little recognition were the reality of a rice-worker back in the fifties. As one of the old women says, ”The work was awful, but we loved being together.” And they sang their hearts out from dawn till dusk inventing verses about the unjust managers and the poor treatment they sometimes received.

Memories have a tendency to become rosier over the years, and perhaps this is what makes Rice Girls a sympathetic but light film that does not delve into the less pleasant realities of the past. We hear about a strike. But we are not told how long or why the workers were on strike or whether the workers got what they wanted. Unfortunately these facts are lost in too much cheerful nostalgia.

Nevertheless the presence of the high-spirited women makes it a very optimistic film, and the effort to reunite all these great characters is very engaging. Like Bitter Rice, Rice Girls chooses to take a romantic look at a past that may not have been all that rosy, but at least the film gives the ex-rice workers a great experience and makes them the real stars on the screen.


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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