'The Postman' delivers passion, verse

June 23, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

This postman doesn't even ring once. Instead, hat in hand, a look of pathetic self-doubt inscribed on his disorganized features, he approaches his sole client with the diffidence of a flower girl approaching the Duke of Lorcano.

The client, however, is a forgiving man, a humane man, though still a great man. He allows himself to be approached, he is not mean or short, and in a little bit of time, unbelievably, a relationship is formed. That is the majesty and the magic of "The Postman," the Italian film directed by an Englishman about a Chilean.

The Chilean is the Nobel-Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who was exiled from his country for his leftist tendencies in the early '50s even as he was acquiring a world reputation for the erotic power of his verse. Of course, all this was long ago, when poetry still mattered. (That it does matter is one of the charms of the film.) He took refuge on a small Italian island, where he was the only literate person and the only certified intellectual.

So Michael Radford's mostly wonderful "The Postman" is the story of a great poet's friendship with an illiterate postal clerk and his ultimate stewardship of this poor but decent man into becoming all that he can become, which in this case amounts to marriage and a stable life, at least for a time.

It's a film of small pleasures and small moments that only fails when it tries for a big moment. The smallest moments are provided by the great French actor Philippe Noiret as Neruda. There's no real American antecedent to the niche Noiret occupies in European film culture, unless you can imagine Gene Hackman with soul. With his basset hound's face, his utter serenity and calmness, his piercing gaze and the sense of a profoundly wise intellect flaming blackly behind his small eyes, he's quite a piece of work, and his Neruda is a wonder.

Noiret makes a whole out of the man's fragmented personality. Diplomat, communist, erotic poet, lover, adventurer, world icon -- Noiret brings them all out and somehow integrates them into a single portrait, yet never loses the man's essential humanity. It's a subtly great performance.

Playing postman Mario is a humble Italian clown named Massimo Troisi. (Troisi, who had been in need of a heart transplant, died of heart failure less than a day after the film wrapped.) In an American film, Mario would be sentimentalized and the whole thing slathered in treacle and caramel. Radford, instead, plays it straight and lets Mario's dysfunctionality stand by itself in full flower of its irritation. He's diffident, sniveling, has no sense of self, and is all too easily twisted or beaten. But Neruda sees something fundamentally decent in him and awards him the most profound of awards: his friendship.

The movie, with its severe beauty and subtle erotic undercurrent, is extremely moving as it watches Neruda's tender sponsorship of this wretched, unattractive man as the poet coaxes him toward personhood.

If only it had stopped there. Alas, Radford felt compelled to turn Mario into a martyr for political ideas that are otherwised not well-expressed in the film. The movie abruptly changes nature and becomes 10 minutes of bitter semi-documentary about suppression of the labor movement in Italy in the '50s. This may be an important topic, but if so, it would do for an entire movie and not a coda.

"The Postman (Il Postino)"

Starring Philippe Noiret and Massimo Troisi

Directed by Michael Radford

Released by Miramax

Rated PG

***

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