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 alive. The book ends with a dark epilogue in which Mario’s very name is forgotten.
The best scenes in the book and the movie concern Mario’s stammering courtship, through Neruda’s poetry, of a local beauty. “What did he say to you?” the girl’s mother (aunt in the movie) asks. The girl replies dreamily, “Metaphors,” and the mother/aunt almost faints, saying that’s the most difficult word she’s ever heard the girl use. The metaphors are culled from Neruda’s poems, although the girl doesn’t know this, and in the movie neither do we, for sure, until later. In the book, the mother recognizes the images immediately, and remembers romantic Neruda lines from the albums of her own youth. Most Chileans would, is the implication, and Mario insists that the single book his fisherman father has in his house is by Neruda—and the father can’t read or write. “What harm can words do?” the girl asks, and the mother/aunt sets her straight. Words are the worst thing in the world—in the book she calls them a drug. When Neruda recites a poem to Mario, the postman says, “Strange.” Neruda says he’s a severe critic, but Mario amplifies. He didn’t mean the poem was strange, but that he felt strange when he heard the poem. The same effect has different names. What’s strange for Mario is romantic for the girl and murderous in her mother/aunt’s view—and it’s all poetry.
The film shifts the scene to the 1950s, and to Italy. It’s a brilliant move, and it would be just pedantry to insist that the change of setting is all loss. But of course the meanings are all different. It’s not the same for an Italian to fall in love with a girl called Beatrice as it is for a Chilean; or for Mario to know or not know who Dante is. Neruda himself is not the same in Italy—he did live for some months on Capri, here represented by the dusty and spectacular island of Salina, but he was younger then, and he was not at home, not speaking his own language. The very poems Mario loves and borrows seem mysteriously to have been written in Italian, as if the poetry of love were an international language, an impression subtly fostered by the fact that the incomparable Philippe Noiret, as Neruda, speaks dubbed Italian as if it were his native tongue.
Neruda, then, is not a Chilean poet, or a poet of any other nationality. He is the Famous Poet, if not Poetry itself, and all that is required is that he live here for a while, and then leave. In the book he is made Allende’s ambassador to Paris, as in fact he was; in the film, he is recalled from exile, allowed to go home again. In the book he doesn’t forget Mario—how could he, after that demotic romance? In the film he does, and thereby gives rise to a quite wonderful scene in which Massimo Troisi, as Mario, explains to his wife and aunt-in-law, and above all to himself, why there was no reason that Pablo Neruda should remember him.
Troisi, who died, aged forty-one, just after the principal photography of the film was completed, has fine comic timing throughout, along with a touch of mulishness which keeps a lot (but not all) of the hovering sentimentality at bay. Here he is hurt, dignified, a little sorry for himself, but genuinely trying to believe everything is all right when it’s not. We feel it wouldn’t have cost Neruda a lot to have sent a postcard, and we ruminate a bit on the friendship of the famous. The movie then accelerates. Neruda returns to Capri/Salina—has he remembered, will he and Mario now get together? No. Time has passed, there is no Mario, only a widow and a little boy who was born just after Mario was killed at a political rally some years ago. Mario was about to read a poem in honor of Pablo Neruda. The film ends with Neruda on the beach, remembering Mario; high cliffs behind, blue sea in front. There is a touch of the travelogue here, but that’s just to allow us to get our weeping under control.
The sound track has a famous tango by Gardel in it, as well as mandolins, and a score which manages to combine the effects of a traditional tune with what used to be called light classical music: a sort of folk Muzak. It underlines the sadness of the movie, but then turns that sadness into something else: a kind of elegiac resignation, the beauty of being sorry for things you can’t help. The movie itself is intelligent and evasive in the best Hollywood tradition—which makes the unlikely Oscar nominations seem appropriate after all. The director, Michael Radford, takes a fabulously romantic spot, and asks us to pretend that it’s bleak and poor, which we gladly do. He then introduces into this romantic place the romance that was supposed to be lacking, thereby scoring double points while not seeming to be scoring at all, and he calls this romance poetry. The film is witty enough, and well acted enough, to keep all this afloat until the bittersweet ending arrives, as we know it must. We like Mario dead even better than we liked him alive, and the dangerously sentimental notion that love and poetry could alter the world is now muted by the sense that we knew all along that they couldn’t.
In the book this is a comment on political and other hopes in Chile. In the movie it’s a universal truth about poetry and material reality. Not that we agree with Beatrice’s aunt about poetry. We like poetry, and we have seen poetry win Beatrice’s heart for Mario. But we think the odds on the aunt’s survival are better than the odds on Mario’s; and the idea that poetry is dangerous slides comfortably into the idea that it isn’t practical outside the realm of romance. Still, poetry is glamorous, and the blurb to the Miramax CD invites us to create our “own metaphors in life.” The poet always rings twice.