Il Postino (The Postman)
by Karl Bowman

Metaphors are just series of words strung together, but in the hands of a master, these phrases spark our senses and inspire emotion. When the poet tells his love: “Your laugh is a rose, a spear unearthed, crashing water.Your laugh is a sudden silvery wave,” she feels instantly special. The Italian film Il Postino (The Postman) is all about these poetic metaphors, but is also a filmic metaphor for our own mortal journeys.

Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), a resident of a small Italian island, hates the life of a fisherman. His poor father doesn’t understand, but urges him to get a job – any job – instead of sitting around all day. Mario soon finds work at a local post office. Besides menial office duties, his main assignment is to deliver mail to one household – the home of exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Phillipe Noiret), recently arrived on the island. The two men, from opposite worlds, become friends and change each other’s lives in ways they never imagined.

Mario Ruoppolo: I’d like to be a poet too.

Pablo Neruda: No, it’s more original being a postman. You get to walk a lot and don’t get fat. We poets are all fat.

Mario Ruoppolo: Yes, but with poetry, I could make women fall for me. How do you become a poet?

Pablo Neruda: Try and walk slowly along the shore as far as the bay and look around you.

Mario Ruoppolo: And will they come to me, these metaphors?

Pablo Neruda: Certainly.

Mario is so child-like in his innocence and humility. But in other ways, his existence leaves a lot to be desired. He is ignorant to the world outside his tiny village and socially unskilled. On the other hand, Neruda is easily the most world-savvy, intelligent and charming person Mario has ever met. He immediately wants to become like Neruda. After buying a book of the poet’s writings, Mario finds himself full of questions. Instead of rejecting his idiotic requests, Neruda becomes a patient and caring teacher, opening his eyes to the beauty around him.

Pablo Neruda: (after reciting a poem about the sea) Well, what do you think?

Mario Ruoppolo: It’s weird.

Pablo Neruda: What do you mean, weird? You’re a severe critic.

Mario Ruoppolo: No, not your poem. I felt while you were saying it.

Pablo Neruda: How was that?

Mario Ruoppolo: I don’t know. The words went back and forth.

Pablo Neruda: Like the sea then?

Mario Ruoppolo: Exactly. Like the sea.

Pablo Neruda: There, that’s the rhythm.

Mario Ruoppolo: I felt seasick, in fact.

Neruda is the catalyst that opens Mario’s world to the wonder of life, something he has always taken for granted. But the relationship doesn’t stop there. Neruda literally gives Mario the words to express his deepest feelings. When Mario falls in love for the first time, he is so tongue-tied he can only mutter a few words. Since it’s harder than he thought to make up his own metaphors, Mario “borrows” his romantic lines from Neruda.

Mario Ruoppolo: Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it; it belongs to those who need it.

Italian comic, Massimo Troisi, gives the performance of his career in Il Postino, toning down his improvisational skills to fit the demanding dramatic role. He is fascinating to watch; so gentle, but maintaining a precise timing. His eyes are the windows to a deep soul, and he magically uses his hands to convey his inmost desires. When appropriate, Troisi uses his comic training to good effect and the film has several laugh-out-loud moments. Troisi really believed in this film, helping to shepherd it and taking part in the writing. That passion comes through in his performance.

Phillipe Noiret is equally fantastic. He is the perfect complement to Troisi and even shares a significant physical resemblance with Neruda. At times, we forget we are watching a movie and are somehow privileged to eavesdrop on a real relationship.

Michael Radford is an international director who has worked several times in Italy. His task on this film was nothing to envy. Not only did his stars speak different languages (Noiret is French), but during the first week of production, Troisi collapsed. Production was halted and they discovered that Troisi had a severe heart problem that could only be cured by a heart transplant. Radford was ready to let the film go, but Troisi championed the cause and urged the team to press forward. It was easier said than done. Radford had to rewrite and rework the film for a star who could hardly walk, much less ride the Postman’s bicycle. But within these constraints, he found the soul of the movie. The “drama” takes place inside the actors, so the long, static takes that he devised actually serve the film beautifully. With the help of a stunt double who appears in almost every scene, Radford pulls off an amazing, even poetic, film.

Another “master” artist in the film is its composer, Luis Enrique Bacalov. The music is so right for this movie with its blend of nostalgia, joy, and sorrow, that it almost becomes another character. Radford asked for a memorable theme and he got it. The music is so memorable that Bacalov won the Oscar for Best Original Score. In fact, it was the only Oscar the movie won, despite being honored with Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations in 1996.

Beatrice Russo: There’s nothing wrong with words.

Her Mother: Words are the worst things ever!

Romance between Mario and Beatrice Russo blooms, but alas, as her mother foresees, words can sometimes get us into trouble. Not only does Pablo Neruda influence Mario’s romantic life, but also his political life. Mario decides he will vote for the Communist party like his hero. This leads to life-changing consequences for him and his family. But it is in these events where we discover the whole point of the movie. Would it have been better for Mario never to have met Neruda or is his life better because of Neruda? This is the great paradox with “words”, or more specifically, knowledge. As we go through our own journeys, we have the choice to remain ignorant or to learn precept by precept. Ignorance may be bliss, but it leads us nowhere, whereas the risk of knowledge is that it can lead us anywhere. But only by stepping out into the unknown does growth occur.

Massimo Troisi died just hours after finishing his last reshoots for the film. He never saw the finished product, but his spirit lives through the Postman. It is a movie you will not forget.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.