The Postman (II Postino)
Many of those who saw The Postman (Il Postino) last fall went back to see it again. They knew it was special, but they thought it was quiet, away from the movie mainstream, like a little beach you don’t imagine tourists will flock to. Now that the film has received five Oscar nominations, and not minor ones—best picture, best actor, best director, best score, best adapted screenplay—it remains special, but we have to rethink the rest. This is after all an Italian-speaking film with English subtitles. The mainstream is not where we thought it was, and the beach is full of people.
There are two other, implied but unstated and rather unlikely Oscar nominations here. One is of Pablo Neruda, for best poetry taken out of context. This is not a negligible tribute, since not too many poets would do so well in this competition. And the other is of Poetry itself, for bringing sunshine and glamour into the lives of simple people, and reminding us all that romance, in spite of appearances, is just around the corner. Poetry also, in the narrative logic of the film, gets people killed, but I don’t think that is included in the imaginary citation.
Miramax, enthusiastic about everyone’s enthusiasm, has republished the novella the movie was based on, brought out a volume called Love, which is a brief selection of poems by Neruda, and put together a CD which not only replays the amiable sound track of the film but also has a series of film stars and singers reading Neruda poems, among them Willem Dafoe, Ralph Fiennes, Andy Garcia, Samuel L. Jackson, Madonna, Vincent Perez, Miranda Richardson, Julia Roberts, Rufus Sewell, Wesley Snipes, and Sting. The readings range from dutiful to disastrous, with two exceptions: Glenn Close gets something of the feeling of “Me gustas cuando callas”/ “I like for you to be still”; and Ethan Hawke, without any showiness, catches all the magic of Neruda’s fable about the Mermaid and the Drunks.
The film is “freely drawn from,” as the credit says, a novella called Burning Patience (now reissued as The Postman), by Antonio Skármeta, first published in 1985. The original title is a quotation form Neruda quoting Rimbaud: “At dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities”/”A l’aurore, armés d’une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides villes.” The story concerns the democratic friendship of a local postman and the great poet, who is living at home on the coast of Chile, and the allure and folly of a certain Chilean dream is at the heart of it. Allende is elected president, Neruda wins the Nobel Prize; Allende dies with his regime, Neruda dies a little later in a clinic on Santiago. Mario, the postman, is taken in for questioning because of his association with the Communist poet, and assured so unctuously that he’ll be home again soon that we know he’ll never make it back …