Il Postino

(aka Il Postino: The Postman, Michael Radford, Italy/France/Belgium/USA, 1994)


Il Postino has been described as the modest little film that unexpectedly won the hearts of all Italians. Then it swept the world, thanks to the American distribution/production company Miramax – an outfit that specialises in picking up quirky art-films from non-American regions.

But Il Postino, according to this tidal wave of hype, is not just an Italian art film; it’s what’s called a crossover movie, one that can satisfy both “discerning filmgoers” (gulp) and mainstream audiences in search of entertainment.

But it’s a soggy, dreary piece of work. It starts charmingly enough. The story is set on an island – an Italian fishing village. It’s the early 1950s, but these peasants live in almost pre-industrial conditions – they don’t even have running water yet. They are the classic sort of ordinary, simple folk you see in a lot of movies – working dutifully, living from day to day, getting married, having kids, getting old and dying … But they don’t dream of any better, wider world.

All except for the postino/postman Mario, played by Italian cinema star Massimo Troisi (who died just as the film was being completed). The character of Mario is a romantic, a dreamer. He has his desiring eyes set on a voluptuous local woman, Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta). But he’s shy and doesn’t know how to talk to her.

One day at the movies, Mario learns that the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is coming to live on this modest island. This aspect of the tale is loosely based on fact: Neruda, exiled from Chile because of his communist beliefs, did flee to an Italian island, where he was received as something of a celebrity. The popular French actor Philippe Noiret from Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) plays him.

Mario is, at first, less interested in Neruda’s art or politics than in the fact that his image as a great romantic poet seems to irresistibly draw all women. Mario figures that if he, too, can learn to be a poet, maybe he can win the heart of Beatrice.

So, an unlikely friendship begins between the mysterious Neruda and the gangly, shy guy who delivers his mail. They speak a great deal about poetry, and especially about the poetic use of metaphor – your eyes are flames, the sea is an angry beast, that sort of thing.

Poetic metaphor, according to Neruda, is the very language of love and desire. And certainly, Mario’s metaphors have the desired effect on Beatrice. Her gnarly old mother is horrified to find Beatrice swooning on her bed, “stoked like an oven” by Mario’s flowery stanzas.

I found this film crushingly old-fashioned and middlebrow. It peddles the oldest story in the book: men are the seductive bearers of magic words, and women are the fainting receptacles for their masculine magic. Beatrice has virtually no personality – and Neruda’s wife doesn’t even have a name! Poetry is a man’s thing in Il Postino. And so is politics.

But I’m not saying this film is bad, or even politically-ideologically incorrect, just because it shows men alone spouting poetry, or even men seducing women. I’m saying it’s bad because it does nothing with its premise that’s clever or captivating.

The British director, Michael Radford, once made a terrific film, Another Time, Another Place (1983). However, his subsequent efforts – such as the modern version of George Orwell’s 1984 (1984) and the satirical comedy White Mischief (1988), are pretty lame. His control of the whimsical tone of Il Postino falters badly as it proceeds.

Once Mario wins Beatrice, and Neruda returns to Chile, the film falls into a dull trough. The ending, when Neruda revisits the island, is meant to be moving and poetic. But, by that point, Il Postino has fallen apart completely.

It strikes me as the ultimate arthouse commodity. It’s a package deal, full of memories of previous European art-film successes. The themes of poetry and seduction recall the Gérard Depardieu version of Cyrano de Bergerac (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990). The sentimental flashbacks and the burly, lovable figure of Noiret replay Cinema Paradiso. Shorn of these extrinsic associations, however, the film in itself amounts to very little indeed.

A weird fact: why is this film being released as Il Postino rather than The Postman? Because it’s in the line of similarly untranslated releases from 1994 in the English-language art market: Le Colonel Chabert, La Séparation and Une pure formalité … OK, it doesn’t take a multilingual genius to know that these titles mean Colonel Chabert, The Separation and A Pure Formality. But why retain the original language in this context? It’s not out of respect for a nation or its culture. It’s just a chic marketing trick: Il Postino sounds sexier and more exotic – more (ahem) arty – than plain old The Postman (the title of a vulgar British comedy, perhaps?).

There’s a behind-the-scenes secret about this film worth knowing. The credits acknowledge that the script is loosely based on a novel by the Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta. But what all the publicity surrounding Il Postino does not say is that Skármeta himself made a film (during his Berlin exile) of this story, With Burning Patience (1983, available on an Austrian Film Museum DVD). And that film, greatly acclaimed in its mid-‘80s festival run, is much better than Il Postino.

It’s something you see all the time in the film business: when something is remade, or there’s a new adaptation of a book that’s already been adapted, the earlier movie is quietly swept under the rug. This is so that unfavourable comparisons cannot be made. And I wouldn’t be surprised if someone high up in Miramax didn’t want that to happen – because, however you look at it, Il Postino is a mediocre work.

© Adrian Martin November 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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