A friendship (of a sort) across the divide in this sentimental, overtly charming romantic comedy drama
Director: Michael Radford
Cast: Massimo Troisi (Mario Ruoppolo), Philippe Noiret (Pablo Neruda), Maria Grazia Cucinotta (Beatrice Russo), Renata Scarpa (The Telegrapher), Linda Moretti (Donna Rosa), Mariano Rigillo (Di Cosimo), Anna Bonaiuto (Matilde Urrutia)
Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) arrives on an Italian island in 1950, exiled from his home in Chile. He brings celebrity to the small community: but also transforms the life of local Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi). Mario, a quiet and slightly lost man who doesn’t want to follow in his father’s fishing footsteps, takes a job delivering Neruda’s mail. He becomes fascinated by poetry and idolises Neruda with whom he forms a friendship, after he enlists him to help woo Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), daughter of the local café worker. Mario becomes more and more influenced by Neruda’s communism and love of language. How will he cope when Neruda’s exile ends?
A massive box office success – one of the biggest foreign language hits in the USA – Il Postino is a film born from tragedy. Troisi had long wanted to adapt the novel by Antonio Skarmeta. So much so, he delayed urgent heart surgery to make the film. With filming due to start, Troisi was so ill he could work little more than an hour a day. Many of his scenes were done in a single take. Radford re-worked scenes to allow Troisi to sit as much as possible, while a body double did all long shots, medium shots and any close-up where Troisi’s face didn’t need to be seen. Troisi recorded all his dialogue before filming – and tragically died the day after shooting completed.
It’s a moving story: and it’s hard to separate your reaction to it from your reaction to the film. Perhaps influenced by Troisi’s illness, Radford turns Il Postino into a quiet, gentle and mediative piece, crammed with restrained camerawork and thoughtful pacing. There is a gentle, easily digestible warmness to Il Postino, with relatable themes around love, friendship and the power of poetry. But you can’t help but feel subtitles made some feel they were watching something arty, rather than something that is essentially a bit of popular fiction turned into a film.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positives. Radford perfectly captures the warmth and eye-opening wonder of a man discovering intellectual horizons he never imagined. Mario at first seems not particularly bright – but we discover he is simply a man who has grown up without intellectual stimulation of any sort. No one ever leaves his island and the only ambition anyone has is to become a fisherman. Watching a newsreel of Neruda’s arrival in Italy, the villagers seem as stunned by seeing these magic moving pictures as they do the famous poet’s arrival.
Into this tiny world drops a magic figure: someone who makes Mario discover that the functional words that only ever dropped hesitantly from his mouth, can actually be crafted into gorgeously elaborate sentences, full of power and beauty. Poetry at first just seems like a great way to get girls – Mario is stunned by the amount of mail from ladies Neruda receives – but then becomes an end in itself. Slowly Mario appreciates things around him – the moon, the lapping of waves on the shore, the sound of the wind in the hills – in a way he never even thought about before. Similarly, he begins to question the quiet acquiescence the village shows to all-too-obviously corrupt local politician Di Cassimo.
This largely works due to a quiet, unforced and gentle performance from Troisi. Shyly muttering his lines and rarely raising his head up to look directly at the person he is talking to, Troisi’s performance has an unaffected naturalness to it. He’s quiet, abashed and shy, also childlike, worshipping Neruda with a puppy-dog intensity (that never wilts, even after Neruda leaves the island) and reacts to things around him with an awe-filled wonder.
Opposite him, Noiret soaks himself in artistic confidence as Neruda, a man very aware he’s a huge fish in a small pond. Perhaps because he’s lonely, perhaps because he finds Mario’s childlike openness endearing, he indulges and encourages Mario’s attempts to befriend him. But, despite appearances, I’m not sure Il Postino wants to commit to the fact that this is not a friendship of equals. Neruda is fond of Mario – but he never, truly, sees him as an equal. Mario is, at heart, a distraction Neruda is fond of. He indulges Neruda’s clumsy attempts to win his attention, and there is a slight quiet background air of fatherly condescension in his treatment of him.
It means people overlook the more interesting parts of Il Postino. Because, despite the way it’s presented, this isn’t a story of a friendship over a divide. The final act is in fact more interesting in showing, after Neruda leaves, that a relationship that changed Mario’s life forever was just a brief, fond distraction to Neruda. Neruda remains the most important person in Mario’s life – but he wouldn’t even make the top hundred in Neruda’s life. Neruda makes little effort to keep in touch, gets a secretary to write a functional letter to Mario and takes years to even consider a visit.
The real point of interest here is how Mario flew, Icarus like, close to the sun – but found he could only get so close. He will only ever be a footnote in Neruda’s life, while Neruda is his life. Even when faced with evidence of Neruda’s affectionate disregard, he will still insist on naming his child after him. Similarly, poetry is something he can love but never quite master himself. This is interesting stuff. Il Postino avoids it.
Instead, it’s a film that settles on sentiment. You can’t argue with the skill Radford directs the film, or the quiet power of a late sequence when Mario records the sounds of the island for Neruda. Radford’s unobtrusive direction – partly influenced by working around Troisi’s illness – works to wring the maximum emotion from it. But it’s still a sentimental package: a package skilfully presented to Academy voters by Miramax (Luis Bacalov’s Oscar win for score was surely connected to Weinstein mailing a recording to every member of the Academy) and presents a pleasant fantasy story for the masses, that veers away from its more complex parts to present something far more reassuring and gentle.