I’ve ranged the far-famed seas,
the nuptial stamen of each island,
I’m a great paper seafarer,
and I ran, ran, ran,
to the uttermost foam
Pablo Neruda, El Canto General (1950)
In the 1950s, in a fishing port on a small Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, Mario, illiterate and unemployed, dreams of a more attractive elsewhere (The New World, America). At the local cinema, he watches newsreels and hears of the impending arrival in the village5 of the great exiled poet from Chile, Pablo Neruda, which leads to his employment as postman charged with bringing Neruda his daily mail.
The daily encounters between the two men, one illiterate the other a future Nobel Prize-winning writer, slowly transform into a friendship. Under the benevolent authority of the maestro, Mario is slowly initiated into the mysteries of poetry. His vision of the world, of human beings and of things is slowly being transformed and he begins to write poetically himself, bold enough to imitate, even copy, Don Pablo himself.
He falls in love with Beatrice, the waitress in the village restaurant, carefully watched over by her sour-tempered aunt, Donna Rosa. Carried away by the power of brand-new words that move him deeply, and assisted by Neruda, he conquers and marries her, or rather she allows herself to be conquered. His mentor leaves, leaving him alone with his illusions, corresponding only occasionally and inconsistently. His disappointment is big: ‘He treated me like a friend, like a brother’. He becomes radicalised politically, identifying with the communist cause. He opposes the corrupt official who in order to get elected promises to bring running water to the village, he defends exploited fishermen and finally dies during a turbulent demonstration against the social democrats’ election victory. When Don Pablo returns to the village, he simultaneously learns about Mario’s death and the birth of Mario’s son, Pablito.
As a novel and film about apprenticeship, Il Postino can be considered on three interconnected levels that suggest the hero’s progressive maturation in terms of his intellectual ability, love life and political consciousness.
Poetry, arguably literature’s most accomplished form, represents something like magic for Mario. It awakens his dormant sensibilities; it allows him to name things; and to name what is beyond things. He, whose father is illiterate like the other fishermen, begins to realise that the physical world is legible, decipherable, and that he did not know anything about it. Having a novice’s innocence, he asks the question that recurs throughout the film: what is a metaphor? This figure of speech, which enriches thought by hiding a first meaning in favour of a hidden meaning, is thus a form of creation. Mario breathes the air of gods, he is transfigured. He will invent images without even knowing it. Don Pablo confesses that poetry cannot be explained, it is felt. ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly’, Saint-Exupéry said in The Little Prince. In the film, Neruda says: ‘Better than any explanation is the experience of feelings that poetry can reveal to a nature open enough to understand it’. Mario is open and ready.
Because of the letters Don Pablo receives, Mario believes with a touching naiveté that poets are loved by women. It gives him the strength to approach voluptuous Beatrice, whom he calls ‘one of the wonders of the island’ and who speaks to him primarily through her body. To describe her, Mario finds new words like new-laid eggs – ‘Your smile spreads like a butterfly’ – while throughout the film a deeply symbolic table football suggests how the line – immobile and flat – transforms into the three-dimensional roundness of the earth and the stars. Mario discovers nature, which the director wanted to look ‘oppressive and beautiful’ – a volcano towers over the landscape – he is transported, ennobled, grows.
Through poetry, the man who, borrowing Don Pablo’s words, said that he was ‘tired of being a man’ obtains a sort of superhumanity and, like Rimbaud’s poet, sees what human beings only imagined they saw. Words and their sonorous flesh invade him, the rhythm of a sentence dances as if tossed on a boat. However, words are not innocent; if we believe Donna Rosa they carry tensions and threats, in love as well as in politics. Words are ‘loaded guns’ (Brice Parain).
But for Mario everything acquires a poetic dimension, the real is transposed: the beauty of women, the sky, the sea, the sound of waves, the belly of a pregnant woman, all things that he records with the tape recorder that Pablo leaves him, so as to lose nothing of the vibrations of the World and the Universe. Mario, the character and Massimo, the actor with a suffering body – do they realise that the end is close?
This island fable is historically based on the communist poet’s Italian sojourn. After the Communist Party was banned, Neruda went into hiding, and in 1949, into exile.6 It benefits from the discrete music dominated by a tango leitmotiv, ‘as if it came out of Neruda’s soul, took the little postman and makes him into an accomplished human being’ (L. Bacalov). The rich chromatic palette (the ocre of the house, the Mediterranean vegetation, and the warm and intense blue of the sea) provide a setting favourable to a spiritual odyssey.
The film was successful in both Europe and the United States, where it played in 270 cinemas, an exceptional number for a foreign film. It received multiple awards, including an Oscar for Best Dramatic Score (and four other nominations) and three BAFTA awards. This success was to some extent connected to Massimo Troisi’s tragic death a few days after the end of shooting. Suffering from a cardiac malformation, he had been advised against making the film and told to wait for a heart transplant. He decided otherwise, but could stay on his feet for only a few moments, and was doubled in many scenes.7
A gaunt body marked by illness, looking a bit like Pasolini, a nasal Neapolitan voice, facial expressions, expressive gestures and eloquent hands also evoke the tragedy of existence for a Mediterranean soul like Mario. With this film, we are at the source of the history of the Mediterranean (mare nostrum) which worships the word, the verb, exhaling as if with the promise of a great spiritual civilisation to come. ‘The honor of mankind, sacred SPEECH’, (Paul Valéry).
In Mario’s destiny and in the film itself, there is both the sun of Eros and the shadow of Thanatos.
And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know, how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.
Pablo Neruda 8
Daniel Armogathe (translated by Sabine Haenni)
1. Michael Radford, a British filmmaker born in India (New Delhi) has made 13 films as director and 8 films as screenwriter. Il Postino is his sixth film.
2. Massimo Troisi (1953–1994) was born in Campania, in the Province of Naples, appeared as actor in seven film comedies, and as actor-director in six other films.
3. Philipee Noiret, born in 1925 in Paris, has acted in more than 200 films and has directed 5.
4. Maria Grazia Cucinotta was born in Messina, Sicily, in 1960. Il Postino was her fifth film.
5. The village in ruins was reconstructed by the filmmaker.
6. He would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.
7. His double is Gerardo, who resembled Troisi so much that at Troisi’s funeral, people thought he was Troisi’s ghost.
8. This text appears at the end of the film, before the final credits. Paul Valéry, ‘The Pythoness’ in Charms, trans. James L. Brown, Chico, CA, Forsan Books, 1983, p. 69.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Italy, France. Production Company: Cecchi Gori Pictures, Pentafilm, Esterno Mediterraneo Film, Blue Dahlia Productions, Le Studio Canal. Director: Michael Radford.1 Producers: Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori and Gaetano Daniele. Screenwriters: Anna Pavignano and Furio Scapelli (based on the novel Ardiente Paciencia by Antonio Skármeta). Cinematographer: Franco di Giacomo. Music: Luis Bacalov. Editor: Roberto Perpignani. Cast: Massimo Troisi2 (Mario Ruoppolo), Philippe Noiret3 (‘Don’ Pablo Neruda), Maria Grazia Cucinotta4 (Beatrice Russo), Renato Scarpa (Telegrapher), Mariano Rigillo (Di Cosimo), Anna Bonaiuto (Matilde), Linda Moretti (Donna Rosa).]
Ann Ryan, Il Postino, Study Guide, Irish Film Institute. Available at www.irishfilm.ie/downloads/ il_postino.pdf. Marie-Pierre Zoui, Il Postino. Un film de Michael Radford, Dossier pédagogique, Les Grignoux, Liège, 1997.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.