Image source. Copyright Cecchi Gori Group, 1994.
Michael Radford’s 1994 film Il Postino (The Postman) begins and ends in the sea. We open on a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, where we watch as a group of fishermen returns from a day’s work, their boats filled to the brim with freshly-caught fish. Another day, another job done. The sea, silently churning in the background, serves as little more than a quiet, steady giver of subsistence. As we learn over the course of the movie, for most of this tiny island’s poor inhabitants, that’s all she’ll ever be.
Fast forward to the ending. We close with a long, panoramic take of Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) musing on the seashore, waves lapping at his feet. The same sea that pounds those fishermen’s boats on a daily basis. But now she’s changed. No longer just a mere means of sustenance, for Neruda and a few, precious other characters we’ve come to know so well, she’s become magnetic and mysterious, a breeding ground of happiness and, tragically, heartbreak. The two portraits of a sea in flux serve as bookends to a movie all about the beauty in the ordinary, the intricacy in simplicity – and, most importantly, the joy in simple companionship. Friendship has always been our bread and butter, but sometimes its influence gets ignored. The Postman elegantly reminds us of camaraderie’s staying power, a quiet tribute to platonic love that, like so many films made outside the U.S., merits a bigger audience.
The Postman is perhaps best known for its depiction of Pablo Neruda, one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed poets. But he’s not the star. That honor goes to Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), the soft-spoken, socially awkward son of a fisherman who, after Neruda flees to Italy in exile, serves as Neruda’s personal postman. For Ruoppolo, the new job hits like a tectonic shift. After all, fishing is the only lifestyle he’s ever known, the only guiding star in his small world. It’s 1952, less than a decade after the Republic of Italy’s inauguration, a period of heightening, even violent tension between Christian Democrats and Communists. For Ruoppolo, however, all that turmoil might as well be taking place on another planet. Every day, for as long as he can remember, the routine’s been the same: wake up, fish, eat, fish, go home, sleep. Once a week, maybe go to the theater, see a movie, hear the news. Not much more.
So of course he realizes how lucky he is in his new job. As one of only two people who regularly sees Neruda (the other one being Neruda’s romantic partner), he has near-exclusive access to one of the world’s greatest writers. At first tongue-tied and timid – he spends a fair amount of screen time agonizing over how to get Neruda’s autograph – Ruoppolo soon decides to truly seize this opportunity. He comes to see Neruda’s presence as a way to escape, a way out of the life he’s known. Erstwhile all but illiterate, he begins to spend hours poring over Neruda’s poems. He becomes the village bookworm nerd, always huddled in the corner, determined to decipher the meaning of Neruda’s passionate verses. Inevitably, he walks away confused, almost overwhelmed by the downpours of imagery and metaphor. So one day, he strikes up the courage to interrupt a pondering Neruda with a simple question: “What did you mean when you wrote this?”
And from there, a relationship blossoms. Throughout the rest of the movie, we watch as the initial fortuitous encounters between the two men grow into something more. Ruoppolo lacks education, but he’s curious. Beneath that confused exterior, he’s always been thinking, but he’s never had the guts to believe that his musings were worth anything. Now, with Neruda, Ruoppolo finally finds a bedfellow in contemplation, a bedfellow who gives him the confidence he needs to pursue his thoughts and passions further, beyond the dreary chains of his all-too-familiar fisherman life. Their road to friendship is not straight, of course. It goes through rocky phases: for a while, Ruoppolo struggles to connect with the equally introspective, reserved Neruda. It runs through numerous diversions – some of the movie’s best moments come when Ruoppolo tries to apply Neruda’s teachings to his own romantic dealings, with hilarious results. But in the end, their bond forever changes Ruoppolo’s life. Neruda teases out Ruoppolo’s raw inquisitiveness and melds it into something worth remembering. And Ruoppolo, as we see, carries the lessons he learns to his grave.
“Unpretentious” is the word that best describes The Postman. Its message of appreciating every person’s inner worth is simple yet timeless. The movie’s location on an island in basically the middle of nowhere works in more ways than one: aside from being true to history, it also allows for no distractions. Here, in this little Arcadian world, miles away from 20th-century Cold War geopolitics, we have nothing else to do but watch the best of humanity sprout and take form. Watching the friendship grow between Neruda and Mario feels comfortable and heartwarming, as if we’re eavesdropping on a conversation between two old buddies. Not heavy-handed like Good Will Hunting or tear-jerking like The Shawshank Redemption – rather, fresh, light, and gently touching.
It’s helped, of course, by all the movie’s secondary components. Like the picturesque Italian landscape, even better than it looks in the tourist advertising. The spoken excerpts of Neruda’s luscious poetry, which will make all poetry lovers swoon. And especially the breathtaking soundtrack, nostalgic, reminiscent, and magical. But it’s really thanks to the two lead performances that this particular portrait of friendship works so well. Philippe Noiret takes Neruda the legend and renders him disarmingly approachable. He’s just your average nice guy, your everyday neighbor who goes out to water the flowers every morning. And yet Noiret still manages to retain an air of wisdom and literary genius about him, so that his character seems brotherly and godlike all at once. We feel Mario’s awe and fascination whenever we look at Noiret on screen; he remains a mystery whose inner workings we’ll never fully be able to understand.
Massimo Troisi unfortunately did not live to enjoy the acclaim for his performance. 12 hours after filming completed, he died of a heart attack. A master who passed away far too soon, but whose performance here serves as a fitting, magnificent closing of the curtains. Troisi embodies every aspect of his character impeccably, right down to all the clumsy hand gestures and self-conscious greeting smiles. More importantly, however, he manages to surprise us. Just when we’ve had enough of poor Mario’s bumbling maneuvers, Troisi strikes us with the surprising nuances and shades of his character’s thought process. This lumbering “simpleton,” after all, is the same guy who can launch on a whim into eloquent metaphors about the sea and pitch-perfect recitations of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems. His ungainly form belies the vivacity and intensity of his mind, a man who has so much to say, so much to offer – if only someone would recognize it. We laugh at him, mock him, and wonder how in the world someone can be as foolish as he. But by the end of the movie, we come to admire him, to appreciate him, and eventually love him as one of our own. Troisi did a fine job bringing such an endearing character to life.
The Postman is a gem of a film hiding beneath modest ambitions. In layman terms that Mario himself would have approved, Radford constructs a beguiling story of friendship that feels both universal and strikingly familiar. On this lonely island in the middle of the sea, two men end up teaching us so much about human beings – their behavior, their thinking, and most of all, their unquenchable thirst for something more. Maybe it’s poetry. Maybe it’s true love. Maybe it’s just a companion. Whatever it is, Pablo Neruda and Mario Ruoppolo both need it. So do we. No matter how easily we’ve forgotten it in the last 20 years, we’ll never stop needing The Postman‘s guidance.
Il Postino (The Postman)
Starring: Massimo Troisi, Philippe Noiret
Running Time: 108 minutes
Produced by: Mario Cecchi Gori, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Gaetano Daniele
Directed by: Michael Radford, Massimo Troisi
Written by: Anna Pavignano, Michael Radford, Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli, Massimo Troisi
Based on Antonio Skarmeta’s 1986 novel Ardiente Paciencia: El cartero de Neruda.