The Postman, a film by a Brit director, based on a Chilean novel and starring an Italian, is an example of a genre that's become highly popular on the art-house circuit. It might be called the Paradisaical Film, or the Vicarious Vacation Picture--an easygoing romantic period piece set in a sun-drenched, sexy locale to which one might fantasize about moving. Enchanted April and Belle Epoque are two of the best films in this style; other examples would be Mediterraneo and Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.
The setting for The Postman, Il Postino in the original Italian, is an island off the southern coast of Italy, and the time is the early '50s. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret), exiled from his homeland for being a Communist, comes to live on the island, where he strikes up a friendship with his postman, Mario (Massimo Troisi). Mario is the son of a dour fisherman, but he has, he claims, an allergy to the sea. In reality, of course, it's work to which he's allergic.
He accepts the temporary postman's job because the duties are light--Neruda is the only literate man on the route, thus the only one who gets letters. Mario believes that an association with the famous romantic poet might improve his standing with the local ladies, but as he wins Neruda's friendship, he becomes less mercenary in attitude. He can read enough to get through a collection of the works of "Don Pablo," as he calls Neruda, and he becomes sincerely turned on to the possibilities of poetry--of words and metaphors.
The Postman is nothing monumental. In spite of the attempt to juice it up with a bit of sting and sadness toward the end, and a halfhearted effort at a political subplot, the film is really a trifle. It's basically a Cinderella story, with Neruda serving as the fairy godmother between Mario and his new love--a ravishing young woman (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) who is plopped down into the middle of the movie--and developed no more than Prince Charming.
But Franco Di Giacomo's cinematography is achingly lovely, and the scenes of Noiret's and Troisi's growing intimacy are played with true expertise. When Neruda sits down next to his pupil Mario, you may brace yourself for the worst--you may think, uh-oh, here it comes, the wise, kindly leftist intellectual condescending to instruct the poor ignorant slob of a workingman. But these scenes don't come off this way. Instead, the two actors seem to be truly becoming pals.
Noiret has another fine scene--his hilarious placating of an outraged old lady (Linda Moretti) who's come to complain about Mario's new aptitude for verbal seduction. Troisi, a major star in Italy who died a matter of hours after completing work on this film, was clearly a big comic talent, with an enormously likable, offhand style.
That's important here, as it carries us past his seeming too old for the role by at least 20 years. In the Antonio Skarmeta novel on which The Postman is based, the Mario character is a kid in his teens, but Troisi was 41 when he passed away. That age, in a less likable actor, could be quite unseemly for this particular role.
However thin and undemanding the film may be, it handily fulfills the requirements of the Paradisaical Film--lovely sights, lots of sun, a whiff of romance and almost nothing emotionally demanding.
Other critics might be tempted to quip that The Postman delivers. But I'm above that.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.