The Postman (Il Postino)
If The Postman (Il Postino) were simply another Italian poetic celebration of the old-fashioned virtues of simplicity, gentleness, and colorful neighbors, it would have been nice — but just another dish of stuffed shells. What gives this old-fashioned, simple, gentle film its fresh taste is the felicitous collaboration of British director Michael Radford (White Mischief), French national treasure Philippe Noiret (Round Midnight, Cinema Paradiso), and, most of all, beloved Italian actor-comedian Massimo Troisi, who died of heart disease at the age of 41 the day after shooting wrapped: The three have made a quiet comedy that touches the heart yet avoids clogging the arteries with — how would the Italians put it? — schmaltz.
Troisi plays Mario, a shy, mumbling man who hates fishing — an unfortunate aversion in a tiny island village that makes its livelihood from the sea. It’s 1952 and, pushed by his taciturn old father to earn a living, he finds work as a postman, a job occasioned by the recent arrival of the famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Noiret), who has been temporarily exiled from his country for his political views. Neruda receives gobs of mail — much of it from smitten female admirers — and it’s Mario’s job to bike up to the poet’s isolated cottage and deliver it. Mario is an untutored man, but not an insensitive one. (He also holds fast to his own political views; in a community being heavily wooed to elect the local fixer, he vows to vote Communist instead.) Curious, open, and admiring, he wins Neruda over; the two discuss metaphor and alliteration, and Mario’s tongue-tied love for a beautiful local barmaid (Maria Grazia Cucinotta). Sitting with Don Pablo, the postman’s poetic soul blossoms; spending time with Mario, the poet’s heart expands.
With so much soulfulness on display under a pretty Mediterranean sun, The Postman might have overripened like a big wheel of Gorgonzola. But, Radford, whose White Mischief was a tasty, nasty story of decadence and murder in colonial Kenya and anything but soulful, avoids pathos and doesn’t condescend to sentimentalism. Noiret, with his great, baggy W.H. Auden eyes that communicate a hundred nuances in the international language of silence, keeps his Neruda sharp, watchful, and complex. And Troisi, deadpan and mush-mouthed, makes Mario an intrinsically dignified man — a poet all his own. It is only Troisi’s deathly gray face that gives away an awful secret, delivering a message of poignancy Radford probably never intended to include in this mailman’s sack. B+