aka The Postman
(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.