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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Il Postino (1994)

* * * 1/2

Director: Michael Radford
Starring: Philippe Noiret, Massimo Troisi, Maria Grazia Cucinotta

Michael Radford's Il Postino (aka, the movie called The Postman that's actually good) is a lyrical and beautifully rendered story about love and friendship. Much rewarded at the time of its release, it is one of the few foreign language films to achieve crossover success with AMPAS, earning nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay (though it was not nominated for Foreign Language Film, as Italy chose to submit Giuseppe Tornatore's The Star Maker instead). Although it remains utterly charming, it does feel just a bit dated now, albeit still well worth a look.

Set in the early 1950s, Il Postino is about the exile of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) to a small village in Italy and the friendship he develops with Mario (Massimo Troisi), the postman charged with delivering his mail. Poorly educated and unable to express himself well, Mario turns to Pablo for advice to help him in his pursuit of Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), who works in the village cafe. With Pablo's help, Mario is able to overcome his shyness and articulate his feelings, though he still has to overcome the strong dislike of Beatrice's aunt - something for which Pablo is ill-equipped to help since his illicit poetry has a lot to do with the aunt's disapproval.

Despite the aunt's objections, Mario and Beatrice eventually marry, though Mario's desire for Pablo to be his best man presents a problem when the priest refuses to allow a communist to take part in the ceremony. Shortly after the wedding, Pablo learns that there is no longer a warrant out for his arrest and returns to Chile, leaving Mario feeling somewhat adrift. He writes to Pablo but does not receive a reply for several months and becomes disheartened when he finds that the letter is from Pablo's secretary and that it asks Mario to pack up his belongings. Mario's dream of an enduring friendship with Pablo seems lost, though Pablo's influence on him is never broken, leading to the story's bittersweet end.

Il Postino is the kind of light drama/gentle comedy that European filmmakers tend to be particularly good at making. It's grounded in "personality" rather than "plot," focusing on developing the characters, their relationships and their community first, and making the narrative arc secondary. The central relationship - that of Mario and Pablo - is well-developed and often moving, and the conflict that develops - Mario's feelings of abandonment after Pablo leaves and seemingly forgets all about him - is believable. The performances by Troisi and Noiret complement each other well, providing the film with its emotional core. That, combined with the fact that Troisi died just one day after completing filming, gives the film a deep sense of resonance.

Though Il Postino remains charming and many of its strengths are still obvious, there is nevertheless a somewhat muted/dated feeling to it watching it in 2011. It's still a really good movie, but I think the shine has worn off just a little bit and it isn't quite as enduring as some other films released around the same time. It's definitely worth revisiting, it's perhaps just not the instant classic it was thought to be in 1994.

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