Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi) is the gentlest of men, a lonely soul resigned to the monotony of life on a quiet Italian island. All that changes with the arrival of Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret), who suddenly becomes the island's resident celebrity.
Exiled from his native Chile for political reasons, Neruda has a transforming effect on the ruggedly beautiful setting where "The Postman" ("Il Postino") takes place. He becomes an unlikely friend to Mario, who blossoms so beautifully under Neruda's influence that he discovers the idea of poetry as if it were new.
As a rueful, warmly affecting film featuring a wonderful performance by Troisi, "The Postman" would be attention-getting even without the sadness that overshadows it.
This Neapolitan actor, also a writer and director and much better known to Italian audiences than to viewers here, postponed a heart operation while he finished work on this pet project. He died (at the age of 41) the day after principal photography was completed.
Succinctly dedicated "To Our Friend Massimo," "The Postman," which was directed by Michael Radford, is an eloquent but also wrenching tribute to Troisi's talents.
The comic unease that he brought to this performance clearly has a component of real pain. But that hint of unease suits Mario's wide-eyed, wistful look and his slow, often dryly funny demeanor. When Mario is first hired to deliver Neruda's mail, he has so little else to do that he spends time breaking in his postman's hat so that it won't give him a headache.
"That's a little trick of ours," he says knowingly to his father, a fisherman, who is one of the main reasons there has not been much poetry in Mario's life. They live together in bleak, drafty quarters, where Mario probably dreams of better things while his father slurps soup out of the pot.
So the younger man is delighted to find a low-paying, not-too-promising job delivering mail to Neruda, who is the only local resident literate enough to be getting letters. Mario must bicycle to see Neruda at the remote hilltop outpost the writer shares with a woman, whom he treats grandly and addresses as "Amor."
"He's a poet," Mario confides to his sole post office colleague once he overhears that. "That's how you can tell."
At first, Mario's expeditions to see Neruda are cautious and polite, with Troisi engaged in amusing rehearsals for each brush with greatness. (Behind this handsome actor's hangdog expression and leisurely manner, there is slyly superb comic timing.)
Then the postman begins to grow bold. He'd like a better autograph than the "Regards, Pablo Neruda" that his first request elicits. He'd like to know what makes Neruda tick. He might even like to be a poet himself.
Naturally, this story is too good to be true. "The Postman" is based on a novel, "Burning Patience," by Antonio Skarmeta, in which the postman was a teen-age boy. Anyway, the postman is a fiction, and Neruda's real home during the early 1950s (when the story takes place) was on Capri, a less undiscovered place than this film's delightfully sleepy setting.
But what's most clearly a fiction here is the effect that Mario's lovely naivete has on Neruda himself. Touched by the younger man's guilelessness, the writer is moved to show Mario that life on the island doesn't need the services of a visiting poet. It already has a poetry of its own.
"The Postman" would be awfully cloying if it hammered home that notion too insistently. In fact the thought is expressed with gentle grace, and it is tempered by other, wittier effects of Neruda's presence.
There's a sweetly romantic subplot about Mario's insistence that poetry have some practical application. He wants it to win him the beautiful Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), who's not much of a reader but likes being compared to a butterfly.
There's the hilarious way Beatrice's aunt is scandalized by such tactics, which she doesn't quite understand but does know are dangerous. And there's the sobering moment when Mario grasps what he must look like to a man of Neruda's celebrity.
"I lived in complete solitude with the most simple people in the world," Neruda eventually tells a newspaper interviewer. Those simple people aren't entirely flattered by that description. Mario's reaction is more complicated, with a disillusionment that is also the measure of how profoundly Neruda has changed him.
Noiret, the superb French actor who is such a sturdy presence, has so much of the right lumbering gravity for Neruda that his performance is hardly hurt by being dubbed into Italian.
He accomplishes the major feat of making Neruda's side of this tale plausible, and gives his love of poetry real immediacy on screen.
And Noiret is magnetic enough to account for the villagers' debate about the essence of Neruda's appeal.
Mario and his postal superior spend a lot of time noticing how many female correspondents this outspoken communist poet and politician seems to have. Mario thinks this must make Neruda "the poet loved by women," but his boss finds that embarrassing and staunchly corrects it. Neruda, he proclaims, is "the poet loved by the people."
Still, neither he nor Mario nor anything else about "The Postman" can resist the romance of Neruda. And those letters from the ladies just won't quit. The boss is finally forced to modify his position. "Even the women are interested in politics in Chile," he concedes.
THE POSTMAN (Il Postino)
WITH: Massimo Troisi (Mario), Philippe Noiret (Pablo Neruda), Maria Grazia Cucinotta (Beatrice), Linda Moretti (Rosa) and Renato Scarpa (Telegraph Operator).
Directed by Michael Radford; written (in Italian, with English subtitles) by Anna Pavignano, Radford, Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli and Massimo Troisi, based on the novel "Burning Patience" by Antonio Skarmeta; director of photography, Franco Di Giacomo; edited by Roberto Perpignani; music by Luis Enrique Bacalov; production designer, Lorenzo Baraldi; produced by Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori and Gaetano Daniele; released by Miramax. <
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company