Late Italo actor Massimo Troisi bows out with an affecting performance in “The Postman,” a sad-sweet tale of a simple Mediterranean islander whose life is forever changed by his friendship with an exiled Chilean poet. Though pic looks set to reap emotional B.O. on home turf, where Troisi’s name is a marquee draw, offshore chances look decidedly iffier for this first feature by British director Michael Radford since “White Mischief” in 1987. Pic’s potentially inspiring story too often remains grounded by a problematic script and unshapely direction.
Film was preemed as the opening night attraction at this year’s Venice festival, doubling as an homage to Troisi. The popular Neapolitan comic died in his sleep June 4 at the age of 41, a day after shooting wrapped at Cinecitta Studios.
Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta’s original novel, “Burning Patience,” inspired by his own exile in Berlin during the 1980s, was set off the coast of Chile. Present version transfers the action to an unnamed Italian island during the early ’50s, and pic makes several other major changes to the storyline.
Troisi plays Mario, son of a fisherman, who dreams of wider horizons but lacks the intellectual ticket to reach them. When communist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) arrives on the island after being granted sanctuary by the Italian government, Mario is hired as his personal postman and slowly gains the aloof man’s confidence during daily mail deliveries.
Neruda slowly warms to Mario’s uneducated innocence and his interest in discovering the delights of poetry. When Mario falls for sexy local barmaid, Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), Neruda becomes his counselor/father-confessor , smoothing the way past the girl’s over-protective aunt (Linda Moretti) and trying to teach him to pen love poetry.
At the couple’s wedding feast, Neruda announces he can return to Chile, and his sudden departure leaves Mario stoked with ambitions, but still without the real means to achieve them.
As his life and marriage stagnate, Mario is forced to face the truth that the poet has forgotten him, and he makes a final desperate effort to attract attention on the mainland.
Pic is essentially a two-hander between Troisi and Noiret, spending much of its length flip-flopping between chats at the latter’s cottage and the former’s musings back in the village. Aside from the diverting (but dramatically distracting) subplot of the busybody aunt (Moretti) and the voluptuous Beatrice (Cucinotta), no other characters get much of a look in.
Noiret is well cast as Neruda, but it’s not a performance that develops much depth as the film progresses. The Gallic thesp (here dubbed into Italian) is fine at showing the poet’s elevated world-weariness, and initially condescending treatment of his uneducated “pupil,” but the script rarely taps into his own emotions to create a sympathetic character.
Gaunt and unshaven, and with sad-dog eyes, Troisi gives a warm, ironic performance to treasure. But with little extra assist from Radford’s by-the-numbers direction, and a script that starts to become very diffused about halfway through, the bottom line is it’s a performance in a vacuum. When Noiret effectively exits the picture two-thirds of the way through, the movie’s structure starts to flounder with a series of apparent endings.
Luis Enrique Bacalov’s warm, tuneful score is a big help. Other technical credits are par.