THE POSTMAN (IL POSTINO) (Italy, 1994) *** 3/4
"Ardiente Paciencia' ("Burning Patience") is a novel that Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta (short stories, novels, film scripts, etc.) of some years back, in which the author imagined the Chilean poet (and Nobel Laureate) Pablo Neruda exiled on an island and making friends with an young, eager and untutored postman.
Skarmeta himself was a political exile abroad during the Pinochet regime. In Germany, he made there a film of his novel, retaining the title. I saw that movie at some time in the 1980s and I remember it as a flawless gem.
Most strangely, in spite of my looking high and low, I have found not a single reference to that first "Burning Patience" movie. Even the press releases keep mum on this. Why this mystery, I do not know.
"The Postman" is -- and I cannot stress this strongly enough -- a must-see film. This version is set in the early 1950s, when Neruda, also a Communist politician and diplomat, was temporarily persona non grata with his government and found refuge on a small island in the south of Italy.
The place is as shabby as they come, with a cinematic look where everything contributes to authenticity, down to scraps of paper windswept in the streets. (I thought of "Odd Man Out" and "The Long Voyage Home" at one point).
Troisi plays Mario, the disenchanted and pauperish son of an indigent and taciturn fisherman. Mario himself seems so unused to talking that his words come out stumblingly and in ways that make you suspect that he is rather feeble-minded.
This may not be all play-acting. Troisi, a famous Neapolitan comic, film actor-writer-director, had been suffering for a long time from a bad heart, was in need of major surgery, but postponed it to be in this picture. The day following the finish of principal photography, he died in his sleep at age 41. The film is dedicated to him.
If you know the facts of Troisi's life and demise, watching the movie is a double emotional experience, but even without this knowledge, the film is a showcase for two extraordinary actors. Neruda is played by the French veteran Philippe Noiret, whom someone described to me as improving with age, like a fine wine.
Noiret, excellently dubbed in Spanish-accented Italian, lives some distance from the island's village. He is the only person around who receives mail (which is voluminous, so that Mario gets an almost no-pay job ("just tips") as a temporary postman, just to deliver, on a bicycle, mail to the great poet.
Mario is keen on this duty not only because he is unemployed (and allergic to fishing boats) but also because Neruda has a reputation as a ladies' man whose sensuous, romantic poetry makes women swoon. Mario could learn a thing or two. Neruda is a communist too, which adds some twists to the story.
The way the gradual relationship of the two men starts, increases and grows is a little marvel. The resulting friendship is more beautiful than any love story on the screen these days. Among the benefits of this odd new bonding is the transforming of gauche Mario into something of a poet and winning, with his tutor's help, the hand of a beauteous local girl.
The actors give extraordinary performances, all the more surprising as the movie's director is a Britisher. Michael Radford (born in New Delhi to an English father and an Austrian mother in November 1950), is an Oxford graduate, ex-teacher, actor, documentary-maker and the director of three previous films, all first-rate: "Another Time, Another Place," "1984," "White Mischief." In "The Postman" he has made a totally Italian film. I cannot tell whether or not it was the British influence that kept the acting and the delivery of lines on a subdued level, one that by Italian standards of operatic rhetoric, articulation and gesticulation, is downright minimalist. Yet both body and spoken Italian are 100 percent effective.
Without forced humor or Great Poet sententiousness, the film manages to be moving and funny, with language that ranges from "professionally" literate to daily peasantspeak and then to both self-conscious and unconscious poetry (by those other than Neruda) trying to break out of the egg.
Mario learns from Neruda what a "metafora" is and begins to hatch his own. As the beautiful and hitherto unapproachable Beatrice starts thawing before Mario's newly-discovered verbal courtship, her disapproving aunt has strong opinions like "When a man starts touching you with words, his hands are not far behind." We also get such lovely verbal images like "A man whose only fortune is the fungus between his toes." (The subtitles do above-average justice to the dialogue).
There are some developments in "The Postman" that did not exist in the earlier, simpler, more concentrated version, especially a kind of protracted post-script about Mario and his wife after Neruda leaves the island and appears to have forgotten its simple people. This may take a bit away from the tightness of the peasant-and-poet relationship, yet it does add a little tongue-in-cheek satire of the egos of famous men.
The movie is much enhanced by a music score that includes, quotes or paraphrases South America tangos, helped by an old 78 rpm of, I would guess, the singer Gardel, and by the use of the bandoneon, the button concertina that goes with the tango.
Oddly, it seemed to me that one of the musical motifs sounded like Sinatra "doing it his way."