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Issue #1782      June 21, 2017

Film Review by Tom Pearson

Il Postino (The Postman)

The poetry of life

In light of the portrayal in Neruda, currently showing in cinemas, we publish the following piece from the Guardian in 1996 to give a more complete picture of Chile’s national poet.

There is a pivotal moment in Il Postino when the poet Pablo Neruda points out to his new friend, Mario, a barely-literate postman, that he (Mario) had created a metaphor, an achievement inspired by Neruda’s poetry. They are sitting on the sand with the ocean before them.

Neruda smiles with pleasure at having played a part in this small leap in Mario’s education, but Mario wants to keep on with it. He asks: “Then, everything in the world is a metaphor for something else?” Stunned, Neruda decides to go for a swim and think it over.

It is 1952 and the communist Pablo Neruda has been exiled from his homeland, Chile. In Il Postino Neruda is living in a house above a fishing village on a small island off the coast of Naples.

He was actually forced into exile by the US-backed dictator, Gonzalez Videla, who came to power in 1948. In 1944, the workers of the nitrate mining region of Antofogasta had asked Neruda to run for Senator and represent them and in 1945, as a member of the Communist Party of Chile, he was elected to the Senate.

He was forced to go underground when his opposition to the Videla dictatorship put his life in danger. The workers protected him, keeping him in their homes and ensuring him safe passage out of the country. Eventually he was given sanctuary by the Italian government.

In the film’s opening scene Mario, played by Massimo Troisi, touches upon a problem talking with his fisherman father which will later become a telling political issue: the island’s shortage of fresh water.

Mario lands the temporary postman’s job – delivering Neruda’s endless stream of mail – because he can read and write, albeit “slowly”. Most of the island’s population is illiterate.

One scene demonstrates how the medium of film can be used as a means of communication and reflection when a newsreel in the island’s cinema hails Neruda’s coming and shows footage of the people themselves and their island, which they greet with cheers and applause. Later, Mario uses another form of technology to make a poem.

Mario reveres Neruda. With each journey up the slope, worn, leather mailbag over his shoulder, he chips away at Neruda’s distracted introspection and at his own shyness. Finally, he plucks up the courage to ask Neruda to write a poem, on Mario’s behalf, to Beatrice, with whom he is besotted: “the most beautiful woman on the island”. She is contemptuous of Mario.

They go down into the village where, to impress her, as Beatrice looks on, Neruda signs a book of his poems with a personal message to Mario.

Mario’s pursuit of Beatrice is funny and moving, in particular when he uses Neruda’s poetry to win her over. The friendship between Mario and Neruda has a kind of warmth and mutual respect which can only exist between two people who have opened up windows to the world for each other.

In Mario the film’s makers have created a type, rendered with careful detail, and played with a mixture of hesitancy and determination by Troisi. Opposite him is a real person – Neruda – played by Philippe Noiret, an actor so professionally self-assured that he simply is Pablo Neruda.

A celebration of Pablo Neruda

Il Postino could as much be subtitled “The Education of Pablo Neruda” as “The Education of Mario”, such is the relationship between the two. Neruda’s whole life was the experience of being embraced by, and in turn, embracing the working people. He had a love of humanity which the film conveys, though does not detail.

The following is an extract from Neruda’s “Childhood and Poetry”: a story that is itself a metaphor:

“One time, investigating in the back yard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen.

“All of a sudden a hand appeared – a tiny hand of a boy about my age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place was a marvellous white toy sheep.

“The sheep’s wool was faded. The wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pine cone, opened, full of odour and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

“I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never again seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now, in 1954, almost 50 years old, whenever I pass a toyshop, I look furtively in the window, but it’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.

“I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our dreams and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

“That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together. That experience came to me again much later; this time it stood out strikingly against a background of trouble and persecution.

“I never dreamed in my childhood that by giving something resiny, earth-like, and fragrant, I had entered into the brotherhood of humanity. But just as I once left the pine cone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

“That is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the back yard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet this small and mysterious exchange of gifts has perhaps remained inside me like a sedimentary deposit, bringing my poems to life.”

The idea that “all of humanity is somehow together” is alive in the film. Those responsible for Il Postino – director Michael Radford, the authors of the screenplay, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli, Troisi and Radford and the cast, including Maria Grazia Cucinotta as Beatrice – remain true to that idea right through.

There are snatches of Neruda’s poetry throughout the film and one, “Poetry”, is shown briefly on the screen. The filmmakers are not coy about the politics and mock the crude anti-communism promoted since the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Woven throughout is the light and shade, the laughter and exhilaration, triumph and tragedy of peoples’ lives. It is a film that carries you through it so that you forget it must resolve itself and finally end: you forget you are watching a film.

It is also about growing political awareness, the rising up of consciousness which can be traced in Pablo Neruda’s poetry, as in this exert written while a Senator before he was exiled.

The Guardian, January 31, 1996.

When I was writing my love poems,
which sprouted out from me
everywhere, and I was dying from depression,
nomadic, abandoned, gnawing the alphabet,
they said to me: “What a great man you are, Theocritus”!
I am not Theocritus: I took hold of life,
And faced her, and kissed her until I subdued her,
and then I went through the tunnels of the mines
to see how other men live.
And when I came out, my hands stained
with depression and garbage,
held up my hands, and showed them to the generals,
and said, “I do not take responsibility for this crime.”
They started to cough, became disgusted,
left off saying hello,
gave up calling me Theocritus,
and ended by insulting me
and assigning the entire police force to arrest me,
because I did not continue to be occupied
exclusively with metaphysical subjects.

Pablo Neruda.

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