Il Postino (The Postman)
Italy (1994) Dir. Michael Radford
If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach then the way to a woman’s is…flowers? Chocolate? Jewellery? According to Il Postino there may be another option – poetry!
Adapted from the novel Ardiente paciencia by Antonio Skármeta this is the tale of shy and poorly educated Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), a man who wants more then to be a fisherman like his elderly father with whom he lives on the small Italian island of Procida. It is 1950 and the celebrated Chilean poet and political refugee Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) arrives on the island in the latest stage of his exile, along with his wife/assistant Mathilde (Anna Bonaiuto). When Mario answers a job ad at the local post office he learns that he is to be the sole person to deliver the post to Neruda and over time, the pair strike up a friendship, bonding over their shared love of poetry.
One day Mario stops off for a drink in the town bar and falls in love with the waitress Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) but doesn’t know what to say to impress her. Thinking that a poem would do the trick, Mario seeks advice from Neruda to nurture his writing talents and woo Beatrice.
Pablo Neruda may have been a real life figure but this tale is purely fictional. Skármeta’s original novel – which unusually was based on his own 1983 film of the same name – was actually set in Chile in 1970. British director Michael Radford’s decision to relocate the story to Italy twenty years earlier was a masterstroke in allowing the sun kissed Sicilian to play a huge part in creating the aura of nostalgic romanticism that permeates throughout the film.
When Mario first appears on screen we get the impression he is perhaps a bit backwards but this is not true – the island is so remote and modest that illiteracy is common among the inhabitants. Being one of the few who can read and write Mario is higher up the social totem than he believes himself to be. Once he and Neruda become friends, it is the tutelage of the Chilean that helps Mario discover not just his creative voice, but his confidence and sense of being within himself.
Winning Beatrice over was the first step towards Mario becoming a man of worth but not everyone is so excited by this. Beatrice’s domineering and traditional aunt Donna Rosa (Linda Moretti) refuses to accept Mario’s courtship and is even less enthused by his poetic efforts, especially one inspired by one of Neruda’s own works (Naked You Are As Simple As One Of Your Hands) which has Rosa foaming at the mouth with rage after she had a priest read it to her), leading to her demanding an end to their courtship.
From this comes an amusing scene in which Rosa pays Neruda a visit to show him this foul piece of verse then demand that Mario keeps his distance from Beatrice or risk being shot. Rosa’s complaint was about Mario’s use of metaphor, proceeding to spit with rage a tirade full of wonderfully inventive metaphors to make her point! A very clever and inventive piece of scripting there.
As much as this is a tribute to the power of poetry and the legacy of Neruda, there is also a political subtext regarding Neruda’s status as a communist, the reason he was exiled from Chile. While Neruda’s poetry inspires Mario he also becomes influenced by his political views and switches his allegiance to communism, which puts him out of favour with the community. Yet it gives him a second purpose for his writing and he becomes more active in making a difference later in his life when Mario learns he is to be a father.
For what is ostensibly a romantic ode (pardon the pun) to life, love and sonnets, this is a deeper film tinged with bittersweet nostalgia, which sadly crosses over to real life. Star and co-scriptwriter Massimo Troisi had been suffering from heart problems and reportedly postponed important surgery to make this film. Once his scenes had been filmed, Troisi died of a heart attack just twelve hours later aged just 41. This may explain why he was sweating so much and often tripped over his lines but he deserves credit for gutting it out for the sake of the production.
Troisi made Mario feel very real and his double act with Philippe Noiret’s Neruda is warm and affectionate teacher student pairing that is a joy to watch unfold. It’s probably fair to say that the chemistry between these two was far more convincing and naturally than that between Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta as Beatrice, although I am sure she won many male fans over by rolling the ball from a table football game over her substantial cleavage! For comic relief Linda Moretti is great as the rather stereotyped Italian matriarch Donna Rosa, just one of the many fine examples of the authentic experience this film creates in replicating 1950’s life on an Italian island.
As mentioned before the location change makes all the difference, not in the least how the visuals of the Mediterranean sunsets and stony beaches compliment the reading of the poems as Mario earnestly constructs them. The small town setting is humble but boisterous while the fishing port exudes the grime and sweat of this mercantile community, in complete contrast to Neruda’s neatly organised and elegantly comfortable home.
Il Postino is a charming film that is rich with warmth and fondness for both its subject and sentiment. The influence of French New Wave on Michael Radford is evident in places, notably the interaction between Mario and Neruda but there is a hint of Di Sica in the portrayal of Mario’s domestic situation. Many have fallen for this film on first viewing and while it may take a couple more watches for this writer to experience that same feeling, I am certainly smitten.