Saturday, April 4, 2015

All the Feels

Film: Il Postino (The Postman)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

What makes you tear up while watching a film? For many people, it’s the sad stuff. For me, sad things don’t always do it to me. Certain moments seem to overload the emotional centers of my brain, though. The ending of Cinema Paradiso does it, for instance. So do the last few frames of Monsters, Inc. And, it turns out, the last 15 minutes or so of Il Postino (The Postman) do it as well. I cried like a little baby, leaking out of both sides of both eyes. Things that are overwhelmingly emotional—any emotion, it seems—are what does this to me.

Before we get into the movie itself, someone needs to explain how this works for me. Il Postino was filmed in Italian with portions in Spanish. It was nominated for Best Picture for 1995, but somehow wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature. So it’s one of the five best years of 1995, but not one of the five best non-English films of 1995? If you needed a reason why I do the weekly Oscar posts, it’s because there are too many situations where the Academy seems to be made of mildly stupid children that need to be corrected by someone. In this case, if this happened because Italy decided that a different film was worth entering (which is evidently the case), the fault belongs to them.

Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi) lives on an island in Italy with his father. The island seems barely out of the Bronze Age. While there is electricity, there is no running water on the island, and when people’s cisterns run out, they go without water until the next rainfall. Most of the people on the island are fishermen, but this is something that doesn’t sit well with Mario. One night on his way home from the movies, he sees a sign on the post office door offering a temporary job for anyone with a bicycle. Since Mario has one, he arrives the next day and takes the job.

That job is to deliver mail to one house that will be occupied by exiled Chilean communist poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret). The job pays almost nothing, because Neruda will be the only one in the area getting mail since virtually everyone else in the village is illiterate. Still, Mario takes the job and immediately begins making a daily trek to Neruda’s house.

Over time, the two become friends. Mario is fascinated by Neruda’s poetry in no small reason because much of it is love poetry and most of Neruda’s mail is from women. Shortly after he realizes this, Mario meets Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) and immediately falls in love with her. He uses selected lines from Neruda’s work to get her to fall for him. Meanwhile, he talks to Neruda about life, love, poetry, and particularly metaphors and deals with Beatrice’s aunt Donna Rosa (Linda Moretti), who wants him to stay as far away from Beatrice as she can make him. This is especially true when she finds the lines stolen from Neruda that Mario has copied for Beatrice.

With about half an hour left in the film, in fact on the day of Mario’s and Beatrice’s wedding, Neruda receives word that the criminal charges against him in Chile have been dropped and he can return home. Afterward, Mario struggles with his life, marriage, disappointments, and impending fatherhood as well as what feels like an emotional and intellectual abandonment by the great poet. And then, suddenly and beautifully, Mario finds a way to recapture the beauty he observed when he had Neruda to guide him.

Oh, but this is a pretty film in so many ways. This could have very easily turned into nothing but sap, and put in the hands of many a director, it would have done just that. Instead, this is a film that truly maintains the central theme of poetry in living without becoming something embarrassing or silly. Mario’s problems are real, but so is his love for what he sees in the world. Because of this, despite the literary pretensions it could fall prey to, it doesn’t. Instead, it’s truly beautiful.

It’s impossible to talk about this film without bringing up Massimo Troisi, who was Oscar nominated posthumously for his role as Mario. Yes, posthumously. Troisi had a serious heart condition and needed surgery, but delayed it until filming was completed, and he died literally within 24 hours of the film wrapping. In a way, it’s a case of life imitating art in that Troisi was much more concerned with creating the film than with saving his own life.

I’ll admit that a part of that certainly affected my emotional reaction to the closing 15 minutes of the film during which just about every emotion possible comes into play. It would be a beautiful ending even if Troisi were still alive, but knowing that he died days after playing a character who discovers the beauty of the world around him is both beautiful and tragic.

This is a special film. It’s entirely possible that the reality that surrounds it makes me like it more than it deserves, but I think it’s one I would have liked regardless. I just can’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature, because it more than likely was.

Why to watch Il Postino: It’s got all the emotions in one package.
Why not to watch: Massimo Troisi’s fate.


  1. "This is especially true when she finds the lines stolen from Neruda that Mario has copied for Beatrice."

    "Nuda..." the priest intones gravely. Hilarious moment. And definitely a beautiful movie. It evokes all of my most pleasant memories of a Mediterranean Europe awash in glorious sunlight—Europe at its best, at least in terms of nature (both human and ambient) if not in terms of politics. This movie is the one I think of whenever I watch Eddie Izzard's "Dress to Kill" routine about happy-go-lucky Italians on scooters going, "Ciao!"

    1. There's a particular timelessness to the place depicted here. It would drive me crazy pretty quickly, but it's certainly beautiful.

      Politics do obviously come into play eventually here, but for a film with some political leanings in its main characters, the politics mainly stays in the background. I appreciated that quite a bit.

  2. It's my understanding that Italy nominated a different film to punish to producers for using a British director. Politics plays an even bigger role in awards overseas than it does here at home, believe it or not. The French film A Very Long Engagement was similarly hurt by this. As I wrote in my review:

    "While Amelie received a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, A Very Long Engagement did not. The French government determined that even though it was written, directed, produced, and performed by French people, was set in France, was filmed in France, and was about France, that it was not French enough because Warner Brothers owned one of the production companies. Not so coincidentally I’m sure, this also meant that the government could withhold the funds that they give filmmakers to support the French film industry. This ruling meant that it also could not be France’s candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

    Just to add insult to injury, the Cannes Film Festival organizers refused to allow the film to be shown there since it was first shown outside its country of origin – France – even though the government had said it was not a French film. In both cases I think the film was penalized for showing how badly the French government treated its soldiers during World War I. The 1957 film Paths of Glory, which was far more damning on the same subject, was actually banned by the French government for many years."

    1. I was unaware of A Very Long Engagement's problems with the French government. Seems like politics ruins a lot of what it touches, doesn't it?

      You know or at least strongly suspect, as do I, that a lot of those problems would've been happily overlooked for a film that depicted France much more positively. It's another case of following the rules to the letter when it suits and ignoring such things when that suits better. Typical, really.