COMMIE SOUFFLÉ

Michael Radford’s Il Postino is rather like a soufflé—a gentle concoction puffed up with justifiable adoration for the late great poet Pablo Neruda. After a dippy beginning, during which some of us are fighting hard to get past the late actor Massimo Troisi’s Italian (sounding like booze-slurred Arabic), the middle portion is eminently satisfying: its frothy lightness is lyrical, an enchanting, reverberant poem. We derive from it something the few movies about poetry haven’t gotten to: that, as Troisi’s Mario says, “Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it, but to those who need it.” Have we ever heard the use of poetry expressed more succinctly? Playing Neruda, who is taken aback by Mario’s unexpected pithiness, the wonderful Philippe Noiret responds with begrudging sufferance, “I appreciate that highly democratic sentiment.” But the director and Troisi slammed the oven door on their confection with irredeemable politics: the audience is put into the gratuitous position of recalling that as many as ten million Italians, as well as Chilean Neruda, believed in a system that fell flat. Its inclusion isn’t false to the period, but if we prefer—as I believe many of us do—that this Neruda be above his fatal love affair with Marxism (he died shortly into Pinochot’s Chilean reign of fascist terror) and instead revel in his sentient poetry, then it is a mistake. Because the movie deals a stacked deck against Troisi, who as his real-life death approaches looks like an emaciated Tom Tryon, we’re a little too ready to accept that in Mario’s small island town there’d be so earthy a mythic sensualist as Beatrice to lift his spirits. She’s right out of a 50s Sophia Loren manifesto, only much prettier than Loren was back then. But, hey, if we can’t refuse the glorious Neruda metaphors used to seduce, how can we expect her to? The screenplay, written by Radford, Troisi, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli and Giacomo Scarpelli, has given the actor a screen death that, because of the politics involved, doesn’t ring true to the character, a deus ex machina with no emotional relevance or intellectual connection. The death itself is consideration of Troisi’s fate, which occurred a few weeks after filming was completed, and it’s obvious how difficult it must have been to balance the character and real life, to affirm dignity to a deathwatch. The writers give good play on word: “What metaphors did he do to you?” clamors the guardian aunt to niece Beatrice. We laugh to the point of tearing up because out of the aunt’s ignorance comes the beauty of Neruda, whose poems established him as first a symbolist, then surrealist, finally a realist. He claimed never to understand how it came to be that his book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, filled with heartache, took its readers to such levels of bliss. Il Postino comes close to explaining why.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1998 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.