Skip to main content

It's like cycling with an elephant on your back.

Il Postino 
aka The Postman
(1995)

(SPOILERS) Il Postino’s success represented a triumph of marketing over substance. As one might have expected from the then-nascent Miramax, whose heft in that sphere had led to the likes of Sex, Lies and Videotape, My Left Foot, The Crying Game, Enchanted April, The Piano, Heavenly Creatures and – obviously – Pulp Fiction making a greater or lesser impact at both the box office and on the Oscars ceremony. Theirs was a battle strategy that would often have dubious relationship with actual merit. So what was new? Probably not a lot – while some of their favoured Academy contenders were deeply average, none were Dr. Dolittle – but it was more acute. And in Il Postino’s case (and later Life is Beautiful’s), it was attached to considerable sentimental massaging of Academy members’ sympathies and the “wowsa” of a (still relatively rare) Best Picture nomination for a foreign-language film.

Because Il Postino is the slightest of slight movies, one that would hardly merit a second glance were it not for the Weinsteins seizing on it as an unlikely awards darling. Although directed and co-scripted by Michael Radford (Nineteen Eighty-Four, White Mischief), the movie is really all about star Massimo Troisi. Troisi was suffering a serious heart condition throughout filming; much of his screen performance was via a stand-in, and he was only able to work for up to an hour a day. He died (at 41) a day after filming was completed. This, of course, was “gold, Jerry!” for someone like Harvey, who pounced on the opportunity to milk the actor’s demise for all it was worth.

Troisi co-wrote the screenplay (with Radford, Anna Pavignano, and Furio & Giacomo Scarpelli), based on Antonio Skàrmenta’s Ardienta paciencia, in turn adapted from his 1983 movie. It concerns Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Phillipe Noiret) and his relationship with simple-minded postie Mario Ruoppolo (Troisi), the latter employed solely to deliver the former’s mail on the Italian island of Neruda’s exile. Inhaling the aura of greatness, Mario soon fancies himself as a poet, one particularly partial to metaphors, which comes in handy when wooing local café employee Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta). Neruda, a commie, has an enormous female fan base, so he obligingly offers Mario tips (Mario also appropriates most of his passionate verse from Neruda). Also in the gently bubbling brew are Beatrice’s disapproving aunt (Linda Moretti), who believes Mario is sex-crazed, and the election promises of local politician Di Cosimo (Mariano Rigillo).

Radford’s approach is one of softly-softly amiability, armed with a dimwit making good as he is mentored by a master, against the backdrop of a beatifically unhurried and nostalgic setting. Il Postino is wafer-thin, and with the best will in the world, Troisi’s performance (Weinstein secured him a Best Actor nomination) is something of an empty canvas. Noiret is fine, but he isn’t exactly being stretched (Moretti and Renato Scarpa’s telegrapher have much more to dig into). That Mario should eventually be killed in a communist demonstration – leaving wife Beatrice and son Pablito – seems almost an afterthought in terms of the political content, unless it’s to suggest the uncomprehending masses who never really understand what it is they’re following until it’s too late (Mario was attending to recite a poem composed in Neruda’s honour; his one prior fumbled attempt at political discourse led to a reprimand from a local fisherman who lost his sale).

Raffaele Lampugnani, in The Superfluous and the Missing Metaphor in Il Postino, believed the movie was missing something of the original, due to the transposition from a different culture (Chilean) and period (1970s to 1950s), Whereby: “The protagonist’s gathering of consciousness of his worth as a man and as a member of society is augmented by the gathering of political consciousness and the euphoria of social emancipation and participation in Allende’s Socialist alliance’s rise to government. This euphoria and hope for the future is brought to a tragic climax for both with the reactionary military coup, the destruction of the democratically elected Socialist government, repression, murder and the extinction of ideals”.

So there. Radford himself admitted of Di Cosmio’s political machinations: “This is part of a sub-plot which got much, much reduced. I don’t even know if it’s intelligible now”. In its undemanding way, the picture fosters wry observations and pithy lines. “You think so?” replies oblivious Mario when Neruda observes “This place is beautiful”. But Mario comprehends so little, it’s a little like accompanying an unfunny Clouseau around (Benigni, with whom Troisi once co-starred, would have been a duck to water in the role). “When it comes to sleeping with someone, there’s no difference between a poet, a priest or even a communist” we are informed (to emphasise the point, we are later earnestly informed “In Russia, the communists eat babies”). When Donna Rosa goes to complain about Mario to Neruda, she’s a veritable fount of metaphors, rather putting the would-be poet’s aspirations in perspective. But the movie is too languorous to ever have much bite, and insufficiently charming to allow one to luxuriate in its gentleness.

As for Oscar, Best Pick (John Dorney, Jessica Regan, Tom Salinsky) tells it that Miramax, in addition to the usual screeners and soundtrack CDs – hence the solitary Oscar – offered poetry recitals (not perhaps such a treat, since some of those reciting included Madonna, Sting and Wesley Snipes). They also vocally blamed Italy for passing the picture by on the grounds of national pride and exclusivity (by this point, it was no longer eligible, because Italy put The Star Maker forward the year before). While it’s moot whether Radford was a factor, the mere notion was catnip to Harvey: “Italy didn’t nominate ‘Postino’ because the director, Michael Radford, is English”. This was fuel to a doubtless embroidered spiel: “People told us they wanted to vote for the movie for best foreign film” professed Marcy Granata, then executive vice president of marketing and publicity for Miramax. “One purpose of the campaign is to tell them they can’t.” (Allisa Peren in Indie, Inc. appeared to garble the story, suggesting it “was ruled ineligible for a Best Foreign Film nomination because, according to the Academy’s criteria, it was not considered ‘Italian’ since an Englishman, Michael Radford, directed it”).

A piece in the aftermath of the Shakespeare in Love controversy (a vastly superior film to Saving Private Ryan) suggested “While I believe Oscar nominations can be won through campaigns — you've proved that as well as anyone with the nominations you collected for such ordinary fare as "Il Postino" and "Good Will Hunting" — I don't think you can buy the Oscar itself”. I’d argue nothing should be ruled out, and I’m certainly doubtful Il Postino’s sole statuette would have made it through without those CDs. Il Postino’s campaign would pay further dividends for Miramax a few years later with Life is Beautiful. That the former has been all but forgotten while the latter – love it or hate it – is etched on the memory, testifies to five nominations only sentiment could buy.


Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.