Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Il Postino at Cottage Road Cinema

Richard Wilcocks writes:
For me, this charming, funny and touching study of the effect of the exiled Pablo Neruda on a poor, near-illiterate island where fishermen vote communist and also dress up to take part in a procession with a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is about naivety and fundamentalism as well as about the use of metaphors and the wooing of women with poetry.

The story (based on a novel) is strongly rooted in facts: the great poet was forced to get out of Chile in 1948 after the Communist Party was made illegal there and tried to settle in a number of places in Europe before he landed (in this film that is) on the small island in the south of Italy in 1952. That part of Italy was much poorer than the north of the country, and still is. He wrote political manifestos and historical epics as well as beautiful, erotic love poems and was a recipient of the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples, which puts him in the company of Pablo Picasso and Paul Robeson. He was not only a fervent admirer of Lenin and Stalin, but also (in the nineteen thirties) of Vyshinsky, the chief prosecutor during the Moscow Show Trials, in public at least.

At the time of the film, Stalin was just about to die, there was no thaw in the communist world and the revolts in 1956 against Stalinism and Soviet dominance in Hungary and Poland had yet to take place. There is no mention of any critical insights amongst the local communists in the action: their political feelings are largely gut reactions, of the sort which go with being dirt poor. The secondary plot is about a political campaign by an elegant, smart-talking Christian Democrat politician by the name of di Cosimo (he promises to bring running water to the island) who criticizes Mario, the love-stricken postman, for being in love with Beatrice after he admits that he is going to vote communist. He tells him that his preferred poet is d’Annunzio, who also had a muse named Beatrice. Gabriele D’Annunzio was a twentieth century nationalist poet who was very influential amongst the early Fascists, including Mussolini. In fact, the choice of the name Beatrice for Mario’s loved one and muse is highly significant, because that is also the name of the ideal woman of Italy’s national poet Dante Alighieri, the one who guides him through Heaven in The Divine Comedy. I think that Massimo Troisi, the actor playing Mario, actually looks a little like Dante Alighieri.

The island’s grim priest, the one with no feeling for poetry, has the fundamentalist right-wing views of the time, which were common amongst Catholics at the time of the Cold War. It’s all part of the film’s appealing 'retro' feel, with old black cars, early Vespas, the traditional wedding, the peculiarities of an Italy long before Berlusconi, all there for the savouring. But the main story is about the bored fisherman’s son Mario Ruppolo, who is fascinated, naively fascinated perhaps, with the famous visitor and the number of letters he receives from female admirers, in the pre-email days when people wrote them. The scene in which he asks Neruda “What is a metaphor?” brings to my mind many memories of teaching English, along with Neruda’s stock response – “the sky weeps” - but Mario gets it, and later makes attempts to do better than that.

The film is full of metaphors, not just the ones in Neruda's sublime poems, of which there are plenty: students of cinema would be able to spot dozens, for example the pinball which Beatrice pops into her mouth and which Mario carries around as a love token, and the statue of the Virgin in a fishing boat. Mario's personification of the fishing nets, using the adjective 'sad' recurs several times.

For me, a side-effect of the film is to bring to mind the terrible events of the seventies: Neruda died just after General Pinochet took over Chile in a violent military coup in 1973. He was already terminally ill in hospital with prostate cancer, and it was probably shock which finished him. Pinochet soldiers apparently wasted no time in diverting a stream through his house on the Pacific coast after ransacking it.

The acting throughout is superb, and Phillippe Noiret bears a startling resemblance to the real Neruda. He is absolutely credible in the role. Maria Grazia Cucinotta is just right as the innkeeper’s beautiful niece and Massimo Troisi is the ultimate in charm, for his lover on the screen and for his audience in front of it. His portrayal of the timid yet passionate postman must be the result of very careful Stanislavskian preparation, because it is just brilliant.

It was a great tragedy when he died shortly before the film came out, in 1994. He was a poet himself, as well as a great actor.

At the 68th Academy Awards in 1995, Il Postino received five nominations and one Academy Award. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language.


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