Il Postino

Lawrence Russell

The Postman (Il Postino 1995) (adapted from Burning Patience by Antonio Skarmeta) dir. Michael Radford cine. Franco di Giacomo star. Massimo Troisi (Mario the Postman), Philippe Noiret (Neruda), Maria Grazia Cucinota (Beatrice)

If you ever wanted to explain or understand how a metaphor works in language or in poetry, then this film is the cipher.

The story is this: after the communist party is outlawed in 1948, Pablo Neruda is forced to flee his native Chile and wander Europe, eventually settling in 1952 on a small island off the south coast of Italy where he is regarded in awe by the predominantly socialist fishing community. The people are poor, catholic and fundamentalist in their view of nature and the world. Their two biggest problems: a lack of running water, and how to get the mail to the maestro.

Mario Ruppolo, the bored son of a fisherman (his father's main preoccupations: silence and eating), gets the job of delivering the mail to Neruda who lives in an isolated cottage in a setting that is as beautiful as it is poetic. There are many magnificent landscape backdrops as the Postman cycles back and forth over the cliffs above a brilliant ocean in the lee of a brooding volcanic mountain.

From the very start, Mario is fascinated by the famous poet and the deluge of mail he receives from female admirers. He observes him dancing the tango with a woman in red (his wife Matilde), sees first hand the maestro's easy sensuality... and therefore has to know the secret. He reads Neruda's poetry, is bemused by the imagery, cautiously broaches the question: what is a metaphor?

Mildly reticent, Neruda recites a cliche, "the sky weeps", and Mario immediately understands the analogue for rain. As the film gains atmospheric and emotional power, there are a number of such scenes:

Mario: I'd like to be a poet too.

Neruda: No, it's more original being a Postman.

Mario: How do you become a poet?

Neruda: (on reflection) Walk around the bay slowly and look around you...

Mario: And will they come to me... these metaphors?

Neruda: Certainly.

And they do. Soon Mario is writing metaphors, poetry, in a notebook, reflections on his beach walks... and soon he meets the woman of his dreams, the fascinating Neapolitan beauty, Beatrice, the niece of the local innkeeper. The scene is one of the best of its kind, the first encounter: Beatrice is alone, playing Fooze Ball (they call it pinball) and the hypnotized Mario is drawn into her game only to knock the white ball out of the machine. Mario searches the floor unsuccessfully and when he stands again, sees the ball locked between her beautiful lips as she stares contemptuously... or is it erotically?

This is a metaphor too, one which the cinema longs for but all too often fails to deliver. It's interesting to note the number of visual "metaphors" that help bind the narrative to its theme: the white pinball, the poet's cottage on the mountain, the island, Our Lady of the Sorrows on the fishing boat, etc.

Mario's first overture to Beatrice is "your smile spreads across your face like a butterfly". Later her Aunt (the innkeeper) snatches a Mario poem from her cleavage and is horrified by its "metaphors", takes it to the priest for evaluation. In another memorable scene she interrogates/berates Beatrice as she lies on her bed. In a hoarse voice she says "When it comes to bed, there is no difference between a poet, a priest, or even a communist!" and concludes that "Words are the worst thing ever."

The secondary plot concerns a political campaign by a smooth right-winger called di Cosimo who, when Mario tells him he is voting communist, chides Mario for being in love and following Neruda, says he should try another poet who writes about Beatrice too, d'Annunzio (in reference to the Italian nationalist/soldier poet), "my poet". di Cosimo wins the election on a dubious election promise to bring piped water to the island.

After Neruda returns to Chile, the politicized Mario is killed during a riot at a rally where he was invited to read his poetry.

But before this the Postman wins his "Beatrice", gets married, wants to call his first child "Pablito" in honour of his mentor but becomes mildly disillusioned when there is no further word from Neruda except news of his successes in the newspapers. One day a letter comes from Neruda's secretary requesting that certain items left in the cottage be forwarded to Chile; Mario finds the dictaphone, prepares a poetic message of sound bytes (the ocean, the wind, the church bell, his unborn child's heartbeat), a piece of whimsy created in relation to the time Neruda asked him to name the most beautiful thing about the island (Mario: "Beatrice Russo").

Neruda later hears this epilogue from his dead apostle during a return visit to the island. Some might consider the ending a bit rushed, with a lot of information and exposition rather than direct dramatization. But the use of montage here is excellent and in fact enhances the emotional intensity as we learn of Mario's ultimate fate through Neruda as he revisits the bay and beach of their dreams.

It's interesting to note that Neruda had a house on Isla Negra (Black Isle), an island off the coast of Chile, so the combination of fiction and history make this story all the more appealing. The film in fact concludes with a scrolling Neruda poem which begins, "And it was at that age that poetry/ arrived in search of me".

Island to island, man to man, poet to poet.

Beautifully filmed and dramatized, full of pathos and sentiment without resort to the vulgar or propaganda (despite the clear political sub-text), a great film for the literati. Or anyone. The simple faith of a man touched by beauty, yet doomed to an early death by the capricious hand of Fortune -- is this not the soul of the Poet?

© LR 11/95


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