With stopover in Italy, director Radford rejoins film world

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

Even Michael Radford admits it's a change.

The British director most noted for two exceedingly ill-tempered films -- "White Mischief," the story of a murder in drunken, debauched Kenya in the 1930s, and "1984," a savage version of the famous Orwell novel -- has now returned to the screen with a surprisingly gentle, sun- and love-filled film about a poet and a postman.

"The Postman," which opens today at the Rotunda, is derived from a Chilean novel but moves the action to Italy. It chronicles the relationship between the poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) and an illiterate villager (Massimo Troisi) who delivers his mail every day.

"Although I liked 'White Mischief' and '1984,' " says Radford, "this film is much closer to me. It's the real me."

Radford, an honors graduate of Oxford and Britain's prestigious National Film School, says he considers Italy his "second home," and so the choice of it as the location for his fourth feature was a natural.

But it's a very Italian film, he wants to make clear.

"I don't like the English films about Italy, which see Italy as a kind of sunny freedom from reserve as in 'A Room With a View.' That's only the English view; that's not how the Italians would view themselves."

Besides, at the time, he was still smarting from nasty English reviews of "White Mischief," which drove him into a period of disengagement from the film world.

"It hurt me," he says. "And I wondered, 'Why am I making films at all?' So I just stopped for a few years."

After some soul-searching, the Englishman decided that he would in fact return to filmmaking and worked in the advertising world for a year or so.

"I wanted to prove I could do that 'in-your-face' stuff, like all the other British directors. But after I learned that I could, I realized it wasn't really what I wanted to do, either."

His involvement in Neruda's life had an irony to it that he loves to retell.

"When I first moved to London after coming down from Oxford, I rented an apartment, and when I moved in, it was completely empty, except for two things. A crate of albums by Van Morrison and a volume of poems by Pablo Neruda. And I ended up making a movie about both of them!"

His documentary "Van Morrison in Ireland" was made in 1981.

One of the reasons he moved the novel, which was originally set in Chile, to Italy was economic.

"I had known Massimo for 10 years, and we had always wanted to work together," he says of Troisi. Massimo was a big star in Italy, like Roberto Begami, a television clown who had made a number of highly successful, low-budget comedies which were very funny to Italians and nobody else. But that meant he was bankable in Italy, and so we had no difficulty getting the money. All that was very easily done."

Tragically, Troisi died the day after filming was complete and isn't around to watch as "The Postman" breaks out for world audiences.

"It's exactly the kind of film I hope to make," says Radford. "It's an intelligent script, but it does make you cry, but not out of manipulation. And it teaches a good lesson: that the power of TC man's poetry isn't connected to who he is."

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