Dino De Laurentiis, Silvana Mangano, Lalli Kamenetsky, and My Novel

When film blogger extraodinaire Self-Styled Siren heard that Dino De Laurentiis had died on Wednesday, November 10, 2010 she immediately thought of the above clip from Bitter Rice–one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema. De Laurentiis produced this film starring his bride-to-be Silvana Mangano.

It was while viewing Bitter Rice for the first time that a tiny seed of inspiration was planted in my imagination, a seed that would eventually become my third novel A Man of No Moon. It is fair to say that without Dino De Laurentiis my novel would never have been written. Here is the story of how it happened:

In March of 2002 I sat in the ornate neo-Renaissance ballroom theater housed in the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University where I ran an Italian film series. A full-size movie screen had taken over the stage. Many rows of black metal chairs lined the ballroom floor. Thick red velvet curtains fell over two-storey high windows inadequately blocking the light from the street lamps on Amsterdam Avenue. Next to me sat Lalli Kamenetsky. Early in the last century, when Lalli was still a baby, her family fled Russia for Italy. She grew up in Rome and spent most of her life there. She never married. Eventually she moved to New York to be near her brother, the journalist Ugo Stille. Lalli, now in her eighties, is one of the most interesting, sophisticated, intelligent people I know. She usually plays bridge on Tuesday evenings, but that night she decided to forgo the game because the film we were about to watch was Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice, made in 1948, starring Silvana Mangano and Vittorio Gasman, and in Lalli’s opinion, one of the best movies of all time.

The screen filled with a great number of women’s asses covered by tight short pants. The women, bent over and in a line, their hands and feet in water, seemed out of some ersatz Busby Berkeley routine, but they were, in fact,  planting rice.

The opening credit sequence ended and the movie began with a small leap back in time to a train station crowded with these same women, now dressed, and about to be transported to the rice fields. Shady looking men in trench coats mingled among the travelers, while a voluptuous young beauty, Silvana Mangano, danced suggestively to popular music playing on her portable gramophone.

At a newspaper kiosk on the train platform, a close-up of a headline reveals that five million lire worth of jewelry has been stolen from the safe at The Grand Hotel. A handsome man with a crazed look is spotted by the cops and a chase across the crowded platform ensues. The fugitive, Vittorio Gasman, hides himself in plain sight by becoming the dancing girl’s partner. (The youtube clip shows a scene later in the film mirroring the earlier dance.)

For the next two hours, the entire audience was completely hooked.

The movie was unlike any I had ever seen. It was scandalous as only art can be. It was a socialist noir with a lot of irresistible leg. It was subversive on every level. It told a truth: story, message, pedantry are all aspects of making art but the key to entering the soul of everyone sitting in the cinema is erotic arousal. Our true self is our erotic self and it is that self every artist wants to reach, it is that self every spectator wants reached.

As the closing credits rolled, I noticed that the name of  the supporting actress was a very American sounding Doris Dowling. I turned to Lalli and asked her about this. She told me that there were many American actors who worked at Cinecittà right after the war. The Italian film industry had–and still has–a system of dubbing so language and accents weren’t a problem. “But what’s really interesting about Doris Dowling,” Lalli said, “is her sister Constance. She was also an actress and had a very public affair with the writer Cesare Pavese during the two or three years before he killed himself.” I thought to myself: I will write a story about an Italian poet in post-war Italy who meets two American sisters, both actresses with a dark past, who distract him for a while from his wish to die.

Dino De Laurentiis and Silvana Mangano both made it into the novel, published five years later:

The evening of Gladys’ premiere she and her sister looked ravishing. They wore matching strapless gowns of vermillion satin, white sable stoles, and long black gloves reaching just shy of their shoulders. Their honey brown hair, longer than usual, tumbled down their backs… Once inside we found Kirk standing next to a replica of a volcano erupting Campari from its cone. Waiters dressed as deep sea divers complete with helmet and breathing hoses served raw oysters and clams on the half shell to film people, members of the aristocracy, government officials, and a posse of shelf-breasted women with thick red mouths. And, of course, there was the press who mimicked seagulls having spotted a loaded trawler… At one end of the volcano, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Dino De Laurentiis were all crowded around the exquisite Silvana Mangano whose head was tilted so far back it looked as if her neck might snap. Her long red blonde hair hung down like the tail of an Arabian horse and against her full lips Fellini held an oyster shell. The live animal slid off its pearly home into her mouth and she shivered and laughed and begged for more. De Laurentiis, her fiancé, warned her against hazardous side effects, then grabbed a tray from a waiter and held it while Federico fed her a dozen more.

Gladys leaned over and whispered, “That should be me.”

Thanks Dino.

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