The Chilean poet and communist agitator Pablo Neruda may never have set foot on the island of Salina in 1950, but writer-actor Mariamo Troisi’s exploration of the idea is probably more interesting than any account of his actual exiles abroad.
The eponymous postman of the film, Mario, has never taken to the patrilineal profession of fishing in his family. His widower father understands he never will and releases his seemingly simple son from his duties, to choose an occupation more suited to his abilities. In town, the communist postmaster needs a hand with the flurry of fan mail in the wake of Neruda and his wife’s arrival. He greatly admires the Bolivarian bard and has his new postman run reconnaissance and procure signatures from him. Though their early exchanges may be of little significance, the two very different men of letters soon form a bond through a series of exchanges on poetry, love and politics. When Mario first meets barmaid Beatrice Russo over a game of table football, he instantly falls in love. He is inspired by his mentor to write her love poems, many of which he plagiarizes, and soon wins her heart.
Michael Radford’s surname may seem a little consonant-heavy for a production of this origin but the writer-director’s English eye can only be clearly detected in the humour of the pacey, racy table football scene; which a native or continental director may have shot a little more seductively. It is really Troisi who leaves his indelible print on the film, which would be his last (dying tragically the day after production wrapped). The actor’s physical frailty comes across as his character’s mumbling humility. When beautiful Maria Grazia Cucinotta falls for his charms (or lack thereof), no one would seem more deserving a husband than he, and it is immensely gratifying to see his son Pablito stumble onto screen at the end. Phillipe Noiret also evokes much feeling in the last scene, imagining his friend’s great yet fatal agitation for change, while walking their familiar beach. We get the feeling they may have liberated one another.
Il Postino is very much a film that flows like poetry. There is no solid structure as prescribed by the script doctors of the time. No stakes and little drama. When our loveable protagonist dies at the end, it is not played for tears of devastation. I felt quiet elation: he had finally found his voice and could speak up for his people at the rally. He asks Neruda earlier in the film a question regarding the writer’s revolutionary ideals, “So what if we break off our chains? What do we do then?” He obviously has an answer to that question by the end, which is satisfaction enough. In another exchange, when Mario’s plagiarism is discovered by Pablo, he counters “Poetry doesn't belong to those who write it; it belongs to those who need it.” This strikes one as quite humorous in the context of the scene but when recalled or read alone it signifies the point at which Mario has cast the chains off his mind. Sadly the distributors do not live by this dictum, and intellectual copyright law prevails online and elsewhere.
While it may be a fictional account, the film is very much a celebration of the actual effect Neruda’s poetry had on many of the working people of the world. Not so much a tribute to him, but to the millions of postini worldwide who have been delivered and a rallying call for all those who have yet to be.