Khristine Shares her Favorite Italian Movies and Series

Another Masterpiece: Il Postino (The Postman) 1994

Critically acclaimed winner of numerous international awards, including Massimo Troisi for best actor, Philippe Noiret (of Cinema Paradiso) for best supporting actor, and Michael Radford for best director, there is no question that Il Postinois one of the best-loved of all Italian movies. 

The story asks the question, “What would happen if fictional character Mario Ruopolo (Massimo Troisi), a dissatisfied and ill-educated fisherman living on a small island near Naples, and the world-famous, very real Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet and lover Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) were to meet and form a friendship?” The answer is, “This beautiful film.”

In reality, although Neruda never came to Italy, he did spend time in Europe when he was exiled from Chile during its repressive right-wing regimes. In Il Postino, set in 1950 when the secular left-wing Italian Communist Party was popular and influential, themes of social justice resonate, and so Neruda is a hero to many. Not only that, though a rather dumpy middle-aged man, he is wildly attractive to women as a result of his personal magnetism and romantic/erotic love poems (check out “The Captain’s Verses”). In the local theater on his island home, Mario watches in fascination as newsreel-style footage shows huge crowds at the train station in Rome cheering the arrival of Pablo Neruda and his lovely third wife Mathilde (Anna Bonaiuto). The Italian government welcomes and supports them, but to placate the Chilean government, Neruda has agreed to live in exile on a small island mountaintop. And of course, it is Mario’s island.

Mario is a sensitive and gentle soul, humble and soft-spoken. His father is a fisherman, disappointed that his son has neither the will nor the skill to fish successfully. When Mario sees a sign on the door of the post office advertising a temporary part-time job for anyone owning a bicycle, he hesitantly walks in and applies. Here he meets the “Telegrapher” (Renato Scarpa) who hires him as a postman with only one customer: Pablo Neruda. Most of his mail is from women, as Mario and the Telegrapher note while sorting the great man’s letters at the post office in a very funny, though understated, scene. Every day, Mario now rides his bicycle up the mountain road to hand deliver Neruda’s mail, and we see him in a series of long shots which are almost too beautiful to be real. But that’s the Italian coast…and it is real. 

To create the stunning backdrop and perfect atmosphere, director Michael Radford chose the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples to re-create a 1950s waterfront town scape, and Pollara on the Island of Salina in the Aeolian Islands off Sicily for the breathtaking mountain vistas and dramatic beaches. (Perhaps it’s only coincidental that the active volcano, location for Rossellini’s classic of Italian neo-realism, Stromboli, filmed in 1950, looms in the distance.)

During his mail deliveries, in spite of Mario’s shyness and insecurity, his curiosity, longing for a different way of life, and newly-formed desire to become a poet give him the courage to approach Pablo Neruda. Mario lingers in the doorway until he is noticed, and attempts to engage the poet as much as he can, given his limited resources versus Neruda’s almost limitless power with words. Through generosity and perhaps some boredom on the part of Neruda, and innocence and persistence on the part of Mario, a touching friendship grows between the two men. 

One day the postman sees, through the open door, Neruda and his wife Mathilde dancing a graceful and passionate tango, their eyes locked on one another’s. Mario is mesmerized by this scene, and stores it in his memory as a vision he recalls later in the film. The scene wakes him up to the possibility of love, which soon appears to his modest, simple self in the form of the beautiful, provocative Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), just arrived from Sicily to work in her aunt’s bar on the waterfront. As they play a game of table football, Beatrice’s languorous and almost hostile sensuality, and Mario’s look of wonder and painful longing play off each other in one of the movie’s best-known scenes. Mario has lost his heart, but how can this simple, self-deprecating man win the love of this desirable woman, especially under the eye of her forceful guardian, Donna Rosa (Linda Moretti, one of the great comic figures of the movie)? The answer turns out to be poetry, specifically metàforo (metaphor) as revealed to him by his friend Neruda in a beautiful scene on a beach. There is gentleness and reverence even in the way Mario holds and caresses his postman’s cap as they talk. His hand’s gestures are typically and expressively Neapolitan, yet so graceful and poetic.

When Neruda eventually returns to Chile, we see that his politics of social justice have awakened in Mario a sense of outrage at the oppression of the islanders by a powerful, off-island, perhaps even Mafia-protected politician. The people are lied to and exploited, so Mario finds his courage in a wonderful scene where he fearlessly confronts the smooth-talking, oily politician. As the rest of the story unfolds, Mario’s poetic nature and his yearning for justice continue to develop, as does his love for Beatrice, and his love for his mentor and friend, the great poet Neruda.

Massimo Troisi (Mario) was not only a well-loved stage comedian and comic actor, but also a screenwriter who came across the story, adapted it, and believed that Il Postino had to be made at whatever cost. He was sure that Michael Radford was the one to direct it. Troisi threw himself heart and soul into the project, and the result is this wonderful jewel of a movie. The film’s score, composed by Luis Enríquez Bacalov, won the Academy Award for Best Music (Original Dramatic Score). Director Michael Radford first approached the famous composer of the score for Cinema Paradiso, Ennio Morricone. Radford wanted the music to feel “discreet” but Morricone declined the job saying, “I don’t do discreet.” What composer Bacalov gives us in this score is a simplicity and sweetness that touches the heart, in the same way that the movie itself does.

If you are someone who likes to watch the director’s audio commentary, this DVD includes that as well. There is a back story to the making of this film which is incredibly moving. But please, watch the entire movie first!

This movie is available on DVD at the Provincetown Public Library or through other affiliated CLAMS libraries.

To check out more of Khristine’s Italian movie recommendations, check out Un Progetto Speciale – Part 4!