Il Postino: The Postman – “tragedies and small miracles in the mediterranean”
Making of’s are a unique beast, most are a means for a fan to interact with the film and experience what it must’ve been like to be on set, feature-length interviews have the same effect. In my experience, there have been few that have changed the way you view a film. Cultfilms recent release of Il Postino features such an extra with director Michael Radford. Prior to watching the film, I had heard of the film in name alone, after watching it and the accompanying interview it made me realise what a wonder of editing it is. I say this as co-star/director Massimo Troisi died while the film was being made. At the time he was suffering from a weak heart, in desperate need for a transplant, and by Radford’s own account Troisi never got the operation he needed because of how committed and in love with the film he was. So weak was Troisi, all of his dialogue was delivered sitting down, with all the shots of his character up and about filled in by a local stand-in, who, as Radford states, acts in the film more than its star does. That being so, it’s a small miracle that it is this good.
We need to rewind a little and look at the film on its own merits rather than processing it through this tragic history. Adapted from the book Ardiente Paciencia by Antonio Skármeta, Il Postino tells the story of the unassuming Mario Ruoppolo a man lacking self-confidence and the only literate on an Italian island full of illiterate fisherman. The film is set in 1950 but given how isolated and lacking in modern accouterments the place is, like running water, it feels outside of time. All except one key detail, the event that Radford’s film is pinned on is Pablo Neruda’s exile from Chile – an exile he spends on this unassuming picturesque Mediterranean isle. Mario is jobless before the infamous communist poet/politician arrives on the island and he only gets a job as a postman thanks to his arrival, after all an island of illiterates has no need for written mail. A slow friendship blossoms with Don Pablo (as Mario calls him) helping his postman win over the affections of the love of his life, Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta).
Besides the tragedy of its production, the other way in Il Postino is remembered is as one of the great romances. Yes and no, the film is romantic but not in the way you’d expect. This is not a boy-meets-girl-with-sagely-advice-from-surrogate-father-figure film, no, its romance blossoms from the flower of friendship. When Mario meets Neruda, the already awkward Italian is so lacking in self-confidence that he could barely say hello even if someone else said it first. Those early interactions see a level of god-worship, with Mario telling his boss that the island’s most famous resident has an aura about him. An aura that doesn’t necessarily fade but it does give life to a friendship born from poetry and how to write metaphors. There’s a sequence on the beach which sees the poetic awakening, as it were, of Mario, a pathway that sees him win over Beatrice that is unadulterated chemistry. And the wooing of Beatrice is refreshingly innocent and chaste. Here lies another of the great achievements of The Postman, Philippe Noiret (Neruda) was acting in French and Troisi (Mario) in Italian. All there scenes have a magical quality and knowing there was a language barrier in the mix is surely one of the great wonders of cinema. Here are two actors giving it everything and they haven’t a clue what the other is saying (they have a script) with Massimo Troisi being one of a select few to be nominated for the best actor Oscar for his work here.
Neruda isn’t in the film for its entirety with the warrant for his arrest being dropped and as much as he loves the beautiful coastal vistas and his new friend, he loves Chile more and he naturally is headed home and its there where the film loses some of its vigour. Like any good romance, they work through chemistry and with one half leaving it’s pretty hard to maintain that status quo. In that last third, the script questions whether there was a true friendship or just a shortlived albeit beautiful means to an end.
Before the two are separated, Neruda asks Mario to record some audio on an old photograph describing the most beautiful thing about his island and all he can awkwardly muster up is the name of the woman who would become his wife, Beatrice Russo. With her on his arm and his first true friend gone, he can only think about that which he lost and that is the great romance of this great romantic picture. The film doesn’t seem overly concerned with the dynamic between Beatrice and Mario, with much of it happening off-screen. This is no boy-meets-girls type job, Il Postino is romantic in a different way. And for as many flaws as that presents in the neglect to flesh out more important parties of the supporting cast, it does provide you with one of the more beautiful scenes in an already beautiful picture.
Mario armed with the phonograph Neruda left behind discovers the sounds of the island, he has discovered the poetry of his world. All he is doing is recording audio in isolated locales, but it also serves as a figurehead for the simple, innocent beauty that Michael Radford and Massimo Troisi’ deliver – the simple pleasures of life and the close connections made along the way. If it ended there I would be singing the praises of Il Postino to all that’d listen. Unfortunately, there is a final scene with Mario and his boss/friend Renato Scarpa (Telegrapher) and it is oddly off-key and abrupt, and we all know the tragic reason for that.
IL POSTINO: THE POSTMAN IS OUT NOW ON CULTFILMS BLU-RAY