This week we continue our July salute to the Post Office by delivering some foreign correspondence: Il Postino. This film was the final labor of Italian actor and writer Massimo Troisi, who postponed heart surgery in order to finish shooting the movie, and eventually succumbed to heart failure…the day after the filming finished. While Troisi lost the gamble with mortality, he triumphed ultimately, as Il Postino received five Oscar nominations, including a win for best music. Not too shabby for a foreign film, but it must rankle Troisi’s ghost that he lost the contest for best actor to Nicolas Cage. On that depressing note, let’s see how this film has aged.
Retro Review: Il Postino (1994)
Il Postino is the fictionalized account of Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda‘s exile. Fleeing political reprisal after the outlawing of Communism in Chile, the movie sets Neruda up as a political refugee on a small island off of Italy, where he lives in relative ease and seclusion with his wife. At around the time of his arrival, a young fisherman named Mario (Troisi) decides to quit the family business in order to broaden his horizons. He takes a job as an assistant letter carrier for the local post office, but as the island is so small and close-knit, his only task becomes delivering mail to and from the island’s newest curiosity: Pablo Neruda.
Despite his lack of education and simple nature, the postman and the poet eventually become friends. Neruda begins to instruct Mario in poetry, and Mario provides Pablo with a window onto the local scenery that his exile status prevents him from observing personally.
The second act of the film involves Mario’s love interest, Beatrice. Shy and tongue-tied, Mario harbors little hope of catching the beautiful Beatrice’s attention, until Neruda intervenes in the form of mentoring Mario in poetry. Although Mario becomes a better plagiarist than student, he is ultimately able to woo Beatrice. Despite political pressure, the happy couple eventually wed, with Neruda as the best man.
The movie’s tone changes markedly during this act, as many of the poems young Mario employs are a bit steamy by the standards of the day. One feels that overtly sensual courtship scenes are a touch out of place and may have been added for a little extra voltage amongst the audience (Troisi is certainly a handsome man, and Maria Grazia Cucinotta who plays Beatrice is a stunning beauty.) My first impression of this movie, gleaned from American trailers, was one of a sensual story of forbidden love, with bodice ripping aplenty. Il Postino is certainly a better film than this, and the overt sexual overtones of the middle act feel a bit ginned up.
The Chilean Cyrano
The original motif of student and teacher is deftly handled throughout the film, including the sultry wooing of Beatrice. The film explores the fiery passion of Neruda’s philosophy and poetry through this simple love story. It struck me at first as a clever inversion of the story of Cyrano De Bergerac, who wooed his lady love by proxy, having his simple minded friend read her his poetry since Cyrano was less than ideally handsome in person. Upon a second viewing, I was please to discover a current of sublimation: unlike Cyrano, Neruda has no romantic intentions for the lady, but is able to express his longing for his homeland in the language of ardor and courtship.
A Happy Tragedy
The American promotional material (besides fixating luridly on Cucinotta’s ample bust) offers up Il Postino as a “romantic comedy.” This is at best over-simplifying a complex and bitter-sweet film. Like Icarus, Mario’s daring to live and love above his station eventually bring his destruction. One can argue the merits of all he gains by engaging the larger world under Neruda’s tutelage outweigh his fate, but at the end of the day this “romantic comedy” leaves the audience with somber sentiments. The brilliant summer Mario is able to share with Neruda give way to autumn, where the two must separate and Mario must learn to navigate the thrilling and dangerous world of ideas that he has discovered through is mentor.
Less a story of long-shot love, Il Postino is more accurately a story about coming of age, and we see a man’s emotional and philosophical childhood end. Neruda is the catalyst for this change, and the charming relationship between the simple postman and the reclusive poet is the true merit of this film.